2020s, Auteurs, Drama, Fantasy, French cinema, Horror/Eerie

Titane (2021)

Director / Screenwriter: Julia Ducournau

By Roderick Heath

Film festivals are in an odd position these days. Given the wealth of venues for viewing movies we have now, the idea of gathering everyone together in one place to watch the new crop threatens to feel passé. And yet critics and cognoscenti still look to the major film festivals to winnow down the ridiculous number of movies produced these days, to showcase and gate-keep for the supposed crème de la crème. The Cannes Film Festival has been the premiere event in the international cinema calendar since the late 1940s, providing a great crossroads for the many artistic streams around the world, but it’s still had a bumpy ride in the past few years, with a large number of Palme d’Or winners failing to make much impact. Recently, however, Cannes has managed to reverse that to a degree, first with 2019’s anointed Palme d’Or winner, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, and this year’s Titane, both choices well-attuned to capitalise on contemporary cultural talking points, much as the Venice Film Festival created a stir with its 2019 choice Joker. Such choices, however good as actual films they are, nudge awareness that current film discussion is animated as much by the way art is framed as much as by what it does in itself. The way movies are sold to us today is in terms of cultural discussion as important, or indeed more so, as the movies themselves, one reason why today YouTubers can make a good living fossicking through trailers interpreting the signals blockbuster movies are transmitting into the populace, and in art-house cinema touching on hot-button issues can make a movie seem vitally important even if its message is something like, “greed is bad,” and when you’re desperately trying to make up for a roster of seventy-odd previous Palme d’Or winners where only one was directed by a woman.

All that doesn’t really have much to do with Julia Ducournau’s Titane beyond noting that it’s very easy these days to be pulled into reviewing the way a movie is framed by external factors rather than the movie itself. But today we might well be facing cinema that plays this game within itself. On YouTube it’s common to see movie trailers that start off with a kind of miniature trailer within a trailer, a little grab-bag of moments of action and spectacles offered as a taster presumably offered to instantly capture the attention of attention-deficient young people. Again, this doesn’t necessarily have much to do with Titane, except that the film’s narrative approach reminded a little of this: Titane is frontloaded with elements of attention-getting intransigence before taking a swerve into something for the large part more conventional. Ducournau emerged in 2017 with the gruesome, stylish Raw, a portrait of a girl attending a veterinarian school, who contends with the abusive social strata in the student body and begins to develop voracious cannibalistic traits. Ducournau immediately declared herself in the running as one of the many possible heirs to David Cronenberg as the founder and champion of “body horror” on the current scene. Ducournau is also working in a familiar stream of outrageous, carnally and intellectually provocative French filmmaking long plied by the likes of Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, and Jean-Claude Brisseau: Ducournau borrows Vincent Lindon to play a similar character type as he did in Denis’ Bastards (2013), the igneous but weathered exemplar of Gallic manhood.

Body horror retains an aura of cool because it readily situates itself at a fruitful nexus of cinema’s most low-down and most exalted aesthetic vantages: any director who dabbles in it is automatically edgy because not everyone can stomach it, but it’s easy to be considered elevated in the mode too, because body horror challenges contemporary culture’s obsession with physical wellness and beauty and easy commercialised images of such by degrading, perverting, and outright assaulting such imagery with inversions of decay, damage, and grotesquery: it is therefore, intellectually and aesthetically, connected with the deliberate destabilisation and defiling of form found in post-World War I modernist art. Which leads me to consider another odd contemporary trait: nostalgic attachment to yesterday’s iconoclasm, often matched by an absolute resistance to current iconoclasm. Anyway. Ducournau’s first film, in a manner that’s becoming increasingly pervasive in current, ambitious horror cinema, turned the cannibalistic theme into an unsubtle metaphor, in this case for emergent sexuality, which was something horror cinema had done arguably to more effect before, but the framing of quasi-abstract artiness made it more respectable, more discourse-worthy. One problem with body horror is that, to me at any rate, it’s a style most effective when being sparing. Many of Cronenberg’s imitators, constantly trying to up the ante of provocation and abnormality, see their films devolve into sprawls of blood and other bodily fluids without that much wit or depth to their musings, and indeed I too often get the feeling the showmanship is substituting for anything actually stimulating to say.

Ducournau is most interesting for most onlookers as a female filmmaker venturing into this zone, and both Raw and Titane are predicated around impudently twisting ideals of femaleness on screen. Actually Titane is ultimately rather old-fashioned, given the fiercely schismatic debates going on about gender and its meaning today, in what it says about the female body. Ducournau’s journey to that end is a long and winding one. She begins with a jarring scene that presents an everyday sort of life-altering disaster: 7-year-old Alexia (Adele Guigui) sitting in the backseat of her father’s (Bertrand Bonello) SUV, stokes his irritation with constant humming, fidgeting, and finally unbuckling her seat belt and flipping about; when the father turns momentarily to force her back into her seat, he loses control of the car and it crashes against kerbside barrier blocks. Cut to gruesome surgery scenes as surgeons implant a titanium cap in her skull, which leaves her with a large scar, and Ducournau’s vision of the shaven-headed Alexia, encaged by a steel truss (nodding less to Cronenberg than to the vision of the hospitalised father in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, 1986, another constant point of emulation for would-be art-house provocateurs) presents her as something already ambiguous in gender and physical integrity, a fusion of human and machine, a misbegotten by-product of rage, damage, and family. As she’s released from hospital, Alexia walks to the family car, caressing it and hugging it, pressing her scar against the window glass as if in intimate communion.

Ducournau takes this basic idea to a weird and literal extreme as the adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is portrayed as erotically attracted to cars. Ducournau stages a long, dynamic tracking shot travelling through the environs of an auto show where exotic dancers gyrate atop vehicles to The Kills’ “Doing It To Death,” conjoining the fetishisation of flesh and of shiny steel for the titillation of the mostly male consumers, but Alexia has ironically taken this to the logical conclusion as her dances are to covertly get her rocks off with the machines, even as they’ve made her famous in this world. But Alexia’s strange tastes have a dangerous side. Showering after her performance, she gets her hair entangled with the nipple ring of a friendly fellow dancer, Justine (Garance Marillier), in a moment of comic intimacy; as she heads out to her car later, she’s tracked by a male fan who crosses the line between eagerness and offensiveness when he tries to force her to kiss him, whereupon he stabs him in the ear with a sharp metal file she hides in her hair like a hairpin. Ducournau seems to stoke sympathy for Alexis here, presenting her as a cold-blooded survivor who’s justified to a degree in lashing out at a sexist and abusive world. But this is soon enough revealed as Ducournau trolling the audience: Alexis is an active serial killer, murdering anyone she gets close to.

We’re obviously in quasi-surrealist territory here, even before our antiheroine fucks a car and gets pregnant by it. Or at least, surrealism in a contemporary usage. Original, authentic surrealism aimed to move beyond mere symbolism and strangeness to explore a realm of total instability, where all things can become their opposites; it aim was anarchic. Titane is not anarchic, not really: how it works as a movie depends on the degree to which one swallows the storyline’s outlandish ideas as metaphorical. We can, say, interpret Alexis’ injury and reconstruction as recovery from childhood abuse and her later persona as a resulting maladaption, her ardour for cars a symbol of a need for perverse and self-mortifying kicks, as well as offering a clear enough nod to Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). But it’s more fun to take literally: Alexis, infused with foreign metal as a child, has been infected with the hunger for steel: only such fearsome penetration can satisfy her, and the language of the metal beings is the one she speaks. Ducournau depicts Alexis having an actual erotic encounter with a self-animated Cadillac that demands she emerge from her dressing room, car bouncing up and down with glaring headlights and beeping horn as Alexis within has a raging orgasm, wrists wrapped in the seatbelts and tits jogging merrily, sweat flowing down her tattooed form. A bold, funny, weird, sexy image. We, and she, will of course pay a price for this. Turns out if you have an automobile for a lover you can still get knocked up.

Anyway, Alexia’s taste for violence asserts itself when she hooks up with Justine, biting her nipple with hungry force when they make out at a waterfront locale, just before Alexia vomits and realises she’s fallen pregnant by the car. When she goes to Alexia’s house and they resume their make-out session, Alexia slays Justine once again by her hair needle, missing at first and plunging it into her cheek, before a struggle that ends when Alexia manages to plant it in Justine’s ear. But she’s quickly confronted by the necessity of killing the two people Justine shared the house with, plus a random guy one had brought home for sex. Here Ducournau feels locked in the same creative zone as Raw, basically repeating its driving, punkish preoccupation with a young woman whose carnal needs manifest as a desire to kill, only sans cannibalism and with a different motivation. It could be that Alexia is supposed to be gripped with such a homicidal impulse because of her injuries, or because she’s not entirely human anymore. But the real explanation is that Ducournau simply wants to galvanise the audience with images of bloodshed and mayhem ironically committed by a young and sexy woman: when she has Alexis tussle with a topless woman on the stairway, it seems Ducournau’s trying to do an arty lampoon some concept of trashy thrills. Alexia, deliberate as she is in her murderous activities, experiences a blackly comedy exasperation as her task keeps getting more gruelling, including killing a sweet-natured black man named Jerome (Lamine Cissokho) and one of Alexia’s housemates: a second manages to throw her off and escape. Realising she’s going to be busted, Alexia returns to her home and sets fire to her clothes, seeming to set fire to her family home as well, and flees northwards.

It’s easy to see why Ducournau kept all this stuff in her script, because it’s provided all the talking points for many critics and viewers ever since, the sort of thing that gets reported in breathless “it’s so crazy” terms, even though it only accounts for about a third of the film. The rest of Titane is an oddball take on a Shakespearean pastoral play, mixed with a variation on the Monster and the blind man scene from Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Alexia adopts a cunning plan to elude police: a couple of times early in the movie an old missing persons case is mentioned on TV broadcasts, with the father of a young boy named Adrien Legrand who vanished several years earlier still searching for the son he still resolutely believes it alive. Realising she looks just enough like a new computer-aged picture of the boy that’s being circulated by investigators to possibly pass for him, Alexia retreats to a bus station bathroom and quickly gives herself a brutal makeover to look like a teenage boy, even breaking her nose on the sink to complete the illusion. And so she’s ironically able to use the police hunting for her to instead deliver her to Adrien’s father, Vincent (Lindon). Vincent proves so eager to find his son that it quickly becomes clear he’s willing to accept anyone in the role, refusing to get a DNA test and immediately taking “Adrien” under his wing. Vincent is the captain of an all-male squad of firefighters, and he swiftly inducts his reclaimed son into their ranks.

This portion of the film felt the most adroitly observed and successfully ironic in the contrasting visions of people doing gruelling things to themselves in bathrooms: Alexia’s self-effacing, self-mutilating adventure, strapping down her breasts and smashing her nose and shaving her head to a ragged crop, segues into vignettes of Vincent not just forcing his body through a gruelling nightly exercise regime, but injecting himself in his bruised and track mark-riddled flank with steroids, in his ongoing attempt to maintain his physical fortitude as the macho hero and king of the crew of professional heroes: as Alexia is trying to erase and overcome her biological identity, Vincent trying desperately to hang onto his. This works because, wild as the adult-woman-passing-as-a-teen-boy twist is and these scenes nudge zones of heightened grotesquery, it’s still made just sufficiently believable by Ducournau and the actors. I’m sure someone’s also already writing a thesis comparing the scenes of attractive women breaking their own noses in this and Cate Shortland’s Black Widow from earlier this year, an act with the quality of a last taboo: with so many women, and men, in the world desperately trying to improve their looks, to reverse their aging, to assert their inner vision of what they are over the crude material of their genetics and environmental moulding, what perverse freedom in the act.

Once this point is made, however, Titane begins to tread water, settling into a wash-rinse-repeat structure of Alexia/Adrien constantly trying to avoid being caught in the altogether, first when she’s bunked down for the night when her/his “father” comes to give her clean clothes, and then repeatedly thereafter. In between are vignettes of Vincent fiercely declaring his determination to protect Alexia/Adrien at all costs, and his pseudo-offspring interacting uneasily with the firefighter squad, including when she accompanies them on an emergency call and manages to save a life. The smirking younger men take the slight and shy-eyed Adrien to be “gay.” For a moment I imagined a more farcical variation on the situation where all the nominally straight young braves start hitting on the newbie who has to keep his own secrets, but this is a supposedly serious movie. Finally Vincent’s ex-wife (Myriem Akheddiou), the mother of the missing boy, barges in on Alexia and recognising her fraud demands a basic compact: she won’t tell on Alexia if Alexia will continue her charade for Vincent’s sake as one who truly knows how deep and painful his psychic wound is. Underlying all the superficial perversity here then is a straightforward emotional arc: Alexia, so badly damaged by her own pinch-faced father’s incapacity to control himself, finds a superior father figure in Vincent, who engages Alexia/Adrien in an extended dance of role-playing where each is entirely willing to sustain their role according to their needs, leading to moments like Vincent insisting on shaving Alexia/Adrien’s face, as well as ignoring the gigantic scar from her childhood operation on her head.

Their relationship seems to be constantly in danger from the ticking biological clock of Alexia’s pregnancy, and she finds herself increasingly, frustratingly beset by her body’s rebellion against her attempts to bury it. Eventually she’s forced to survey her mangled form, covered in bruises and gouges and with the stigmata of her unnatural pregnancy breaking out regardless as she leaks out motor oil in place of milk and blood from nipples and vagina, and splitting skin on her bulging belly reveals the infesting gleam of metal. This narrative turn reminded me, in a seemingly distant swerve of attention, of something out of ancient ritual myth, or variations transmitted in some more profane vehicle like Jane Seymour’s Solitaire in Live and Let Die (1973) – the seer who loses her mystic power when she’s sexually awakened. Similarly, Ducournau seems to offer Alexia as depowered by the admission of anything like human feeling, with her killings representing some sort of sovereign power – a ridiculous metaphor but okay – that she loses, although it’s her impregnation that nominally starts her down this road, an impregnation brought about by her rare nature. The trouble with this is that the early scenes of Titane seem to explicitly disavow sentimentality in terms of its characters, only to then try and milk Alexia/Adrien and Vincent’s relationship for something resembling grounded pathos. Their connection is deepened when Alexia finds Vincent prone after one of his steroid injections goes wrong, and finds she can’t take advantage of the chance to kill him.

More power to artists trying to walk a tonal tightrope and reach for strange new epiphanies, but I never felt particularly convinced or compelled by any of this, despite Lindon’s vehemently committed and deeply felt performance: Lindon is one of the best actors in movies today, and he brings a depth of feeling and a palpable sense of his character’s bleary mental and emotional exhaustion and desperate attempts to keep up appearances. The greater part of the problem is that Alexia/Adrien is by comparison an empty vessel: the casually murderous entity of the first section of the film becomes a poor vehicle for exploring unexpected and unusual bonds later in the film. It might have been more interesting if Alexia/Adrien was allowed a greater degree of self-expression, but the character is stricken with an impassive blankness beyond mere registers of transient feelings – pain, anger and so forth – particularly emphasised in the long mid-section of the film where Alexis/Adrien refuses to speak lest her voice give the game away and it’s taken for a traumatic symptom. Such blankness is rather too common in contemporary “serious” movies, usually because filmmakers want characters who function as ready viewpoint figures, but Alexia remains stuck someplace else, between multifarious symbol and actual character. Alexia’s scar is constantly, improbably on show, obvious both when she’s a dancer – is that a good career move? – and later when she’s posing as Adrien, gaining no comment from anyone. Again, of course, one can read it as symbolism of a kind, but it still feels overly garish and distracting.

In Raw Marillier also played a character called Justine, whilst the two major characters framing her emergent nature were named Alexia and Adrien, suggesting those names have some totemic meaning, particularly in their ultimate pseudo-fusion. Ducournau killing off this version of Justine, who’s bold and queer, might represent some leaving behind of the past. Or maybe it’s just a precious screenwriting touch. The version of Alexia presented early in the film is completely unsympathetic; the version we get later, the quasi-Adrien, we’re asked to feel some odd sympathy for as she’s beset by increasing impotence, stricken as her body rebels on her and her former cold-bloodedness deserts her – she can’t kill Vincent and she fails in her attempt to abort her new body-infesting foetus with her hair needle. She can’t even wield the same sexual imperiousness as before – when she’s laughingly goaded by the fire fighters into dancing atop a fire truck during one of their unit’s occasional parties, her sexy dance style falls flat by the weirded-out young men. This scene aims for cringe-inducing discomfort and obtains it, although Ducournau seems to think it’s utterly verboten for a young man to dance like a sexy woman. Most guys would find it hilarious and the highpoint of the party. The repeated jabs at the raunch culture Alexia profits off feel rather dated in themselves, whilst Ducournau’s collection of firefighters looks like a gang of male strippers anyway. The cultural targets in Titane feel a bit hackneyed is what I’m saying. Alexia’s revisit of her ritual seduction dance is then followed by her attempt to get it on with the fire truck, but gains no result: Alexia has lost her ability to give or gain satiety that way.

Being inducted into the firefighter crew at least seems to offer Alexia/Adrien the chance to enter a world defined by madcap physical heroism and gutsy dedication that’s the polar opposite of her/his sharklike and parasitic existence, an induction that also sees Alexia/Adrien slowly embrace the role of sustaining Vincent’s illusions, something everyone around him seems to agree to do on one level or another. Vincent already has a surrogate son figure on his team, Rayane (Laïs Salameh), who gets jealous of Alexia/Adrien. It’s not a thread of the film that goes anywhere, and Rayane is killed later when he and Vincent fearlessly venture into a forest fire and Vincent gets him to take charge of a gas canister retrieved from a caravan which then explodes. This event serves to chiefly serve to drive Vincent even deeper into his self-imposed role, even beholding Alexia naked finally but still avowing his function as father and protector. Things build to a head as Alexia tries to seduce Vincent, a move that creeps him out too much, but also seems to finally provoke Alexia to give birth, with Vincent desperately trying to coach her as her body tries to do something at once natural and inimical.

Much of Titane made me wish Ducournau had stuck to the initial epater-le-bourgeois zaniness or had started with Vincent accepting this odd changeling and had rolled from there in a more careful journey through a game of arbitrarily agreed rules in deception and acceptance, because it feels like an uneasy conjunction of a couple of different script drafts, and there are points in the film where it comes close to – quelle horreur – a typical indie feels entry where some life-ragged people find each-other and form an oddball unit. Or perhaps it’s the dream life of the Fast and Furious films turned inside out, with their obsession with cars and family. The scene with Vincent’s ex-wife, although exceptionally well-performed by Akheddiou, nonetheless disrupts the dragonfly-skating-on-water tenor of the rest of the film’s mutually agreed reality, a veering into quotidian psychological realism that feels misjudged. Overall, as a film Titane lacks the derivative but compelling aesthetic of Raw, and in many ways feels like a classic awkward sophomore effort, even if the faults it shares with its precursor are fairly consistent: an indecisive tenor to the toggling between realism and anti-realism, the lack of sense for somewhere interesting or exciting to go after the basic conceits are employed and their elemental value expended until a great climactic image partly makes up the difference. This climax does manage to bring many of the film’s meandering threads and depraved emotions to coherent and fitting terminus, culminating with the indelibly sick image of Vincent cradling Alexia’s offspring with veins of rippling metal running up its spine and head, ironically reborn himself as a father to some fresh hybrid whilst the misbegotten mother lying dead and mangled.

Ducournau’s attempt to restore some of the primal anxiety inherent in childbirth is fascinatingly visualised even if it remains at an arm’s length from the nominal narrative containing it. Maybe if I felt something more maniacal and wilful in Alexia, something that made her body’s rebellion and her ultimate fate feel more palpable, I might have been more persuaded by the drama overall. But I kept thinking back to the moment in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) where Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein) wails “Oh no!” when she suffers a crippling injury that finally foils her brash physicality, and it hits in a few brief seconds exactly the note Titane tries constantly to hit. In terms of the film’s nominal exploration of gender role-playing, Titane actually makes an unfashionable point – that, no matter how it’s denied, disguised, revised, and inhabited, the body is still ultimately a slave to nature. Perhaps the proper zone of ambiguity there is just what nature is, what it imposes on us, the people trapped within such cages of flesh, could be a much larger question than anyone knows. Which is a damned interesting point to chase down, and the pity with Titane is that it doesn’t really ask it until the very end.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Dune: Part One (2021)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

As a dedicated fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune and its literary children, I anticipated a new film adaptation with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Dune has managed to sustain a potent cult over the half-century since its publication, its influence manifest in subsequent hits as diverse as Star Wars, The Matrix, and Game of Thrones, to the point where its building blocks now seem pervasively familiar, even if its most individual and esoteric qualities remain largely untapped and evergreen in their strangeness. Herbert’s legendarium, with its encoded metaphors for mind-expanding drug use, fossil fuel dependency, post-colonial politics, nascent feminism, and religious seeking, seemed exactly attuned to gathering forces in the modern zeitgeist and so caught the imagination of three generations of dorm room dreamers, but also connected with a larger, more mainstream audience in a way hardcore science fiction rarely does, albeit also erecting a firm barrier between those who could penetrate Herbert’s odd, dense writing style and those left totally cold by it. On a more immediate level, Herbert’s preoccupation with the figure of a quasi-messianic hero who finds himself anointed the one person who can rebound from near-oblivion to lead an uprising helped connect the science fiction genre’s roots in pulp heroism and exotic adventuring with a new preoccupation with the experience of maturation as the key modern narrative, birthing the “chosen one” motif in just about every emulating fantastical epic since.

And, of course, there were earlier versions. David Lynch’s big, bizarre, contorted, but almost endlessly fascinating 1984 version became mostly remembered as a debacle echoing in the corridors of pop culture history but has since gathered a fervent cult following. Jim Harrison’s 2000 TV miniseries proved modestly popular and proficient in its indulgence: whilst scarcely memorable, it seems to have laid seeds for the age of prestige television. For myself, I love both the Herbert novel and Lynch’s film, even if they’re passions that cannot ever quite overlap: they exist a little like matter and antimatter, reflecting the image of the other but unable to touch without annihilation. Lynch’s film manages the unique task of being both maddeningly fastidious and wilfully odd as adaptation, sometimes obsessed with communicating the most finicky details from Herbert and elsewhere badly distorting and even avoiding important elements. Now comes the first part of Denis Villeneuve’s proposed two-instalment adaptation of Dune, a bombastic unit of expenditure and epic portent that seems to have been produced with a determination to avoid the heralded mistakes of Lynch’s version, by taking a leaf from Andres Muschietti’s financially successful adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017-19) and splitting the book into two movies.

It’s easy to see a dismaying motive behind the new version: present-day Hollywood’s reliance on familiar intellectual property with a hopefully baked-in audience has become so unshakeable that it would rather try again to adapt a book commonly described as unfilmable after Lynch’s version proved a massive financial failure, on the vague expectation the novel’s fans will come, than take a chance on something new. But hope for a new adaptation that would prove sufficiently balanced and coherent, able to at once honour the material’s most specific qualities and appeal to a big audience, has long preoccupied Dune’s fandom, particularly as I suspect every aficionado has long cherished their personal idea of how it should be done. Bifurcating the story promises that the novel’s meticulous construction of its imagined future 8000-odd years hence could be carefully meted out along with the strong, fairly straightforward central storyline. This approach has its own, big risks of course, as any of the three people who remember The Golden Compass (2007) can testify. Regardless, in familiar fashion, Dune unfolds in a distant future in which humans have colonised tracts of the galaxy and have developed a neo-feudal system of control where an all-powerful Emperor and the feudal houses under him administrate the many planets.

We see the House of Atreides, led by the canny and noble but world-weary Duke Leto (Oscar Isaacs), assigned to take over the planet Arrakis by his Emperor, displacing the previous clan of administrators, their hated rivals the Harkonnens, and taking on the responsibility of mining the substance called spice that only occurs there. The spice is absolutely crucial to the shape and operation of the Empire, so whilst the spice mining is an incredibly lucrative business, failure to keep it flowing could bring down harsh penalties. Leto and his advisors also suspect they’re being set up for a fall, a correct assumption, as the Harkonnens are being backed by the Emperor to wipe the Atreides out and rid him of rivals. Leto and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) have one son, the teenaged Paul (Timothée Chalamet): Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a sect who operate at the nexus of priestesses, nuns, witches, and genetic scientists. The sect has long been dedicated to breeding a human with psychic gifts pronounced enough to see the future and actively control future human evolution, a notional being dubbed the Kwisatz Haderach in ancient prophecy, and Jessica represents the near-culmination of the project. But Paul’s birth, the result of Jessica’s desire to please Leto after she unexpectedly fell in love with him, disrupted the project, and now Paul is displaying nascent signs of being the Kwisatz Haderach. The Atreides are attacked by the Harkonnens, who break through their defences thanks to the treachery of their house physician Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), but Yueh’s complex motives also see him arrange to save Paul and Jessica from the massacre.

Villeneuve wisely casts familiar faces even in relatively minor parts, making Dune something of an old-fashioned star-studded epic, even if it resists the Lynch version’s delight in showing off its all-star cast in a long curtain call-like final credits scene. Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin play the ultraloyal and omnicompetent Atreides warriors Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, respectively, whilst Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the house strategist and “Mentat” Thufir Hawat. The three actors have the ability to swiftly and effectively make their characters interesting and palpable, even as they’re also essentially wasted. Brolin gets one of the very few jots of humour in the film as he maintains his familiar tight and stoic grimace even whilst answering Leto’s teasing command to smile with “I am smiling.” Charlotte Rampling is somewhat inevitably cast as Reverend Mother Mohiam, the stern, mysterious, haughty exemplar of the Bene Gesserit creed who nominally works for the Emperor but pushes the Bene Gesserit agenda at all times. Liet Kynes, the Imperial ecologist assigned to study Arrakis turned covert renegade and a male in the book, has here been turned into a woman for some reason or another, with Sharon Duncan-Brewster taking the role. Javier Bardem turns up for two scenes to mumble impressively as Stilgar, a leader of the so-called Fremen, the original human colonists of Arrakis who long since adapted to life on the planet and consider themselves its true custodians, but have since suffered from persecution at the hands of the Imperial and Harkonnen enforcers.

Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth peel away much of the story superstructure in digging down to the fundamental melodrama that forms the spine of the plot, which, he’s decided, is the fate of the key Atreides themselves – Leto, Jessica, and Paul, with interpersonal exchanges between the three trying for a mix of familial affection and pained gravitas, and the tragedy that presages the rise of the young scion on the path to revenge and mystical transformation. There’s an early scene in the novel, dutifully recreated in all versions, which provides a galvanising moment in the narrative, when Paul is visited by Mohiam, who insists on testing his mettle for at that point obscure reasons. She forces him to stick his hand into a box that induces terrible pain, challenging him to withstand the pain or be killed with a poisoned needle pressed to his throat, in a rite of passage designed to distinguish if he’s a true human, infinitely capable of patience and resistance, or a mere “animal,” slave to impulse and reaction. It’s a scene that, I expect, most genuinely hooks the attention of about-to-be fans, as it not only presents a thrilling situation, but also encapsulates much of how Herbert’s writing and storytelling works – the lengthy, ritualistic confrontation of strong personalities, the suspense based in the problem of a surviving a situation when hemmed in by potential checkmates of lethal capacity where cast-iron willpower must be met with the same, and the unsettling description of a teenage boy being forced to endure perfect agony without flinching as a preparation for life in a world without safe and comforting moral boundaries.

Villeneuve handles the scene as well as Lynch did, in the contrast between Chalamet’s open-faced youthfulness and Mohiam’s veil-clad and forbidding embodiment of all that’s powerfully arcane and dismissive of weakness, particularly with the added touch of Jessica able to maintain sympathy with her son from outside the room and experiencing what he experiences, reciting the famous mantra against fear. Villeneuve and his screenwriting team seem to be trying to take a leaf from The Godfather’s (1972) example in trying to communicate the relationships between the central family characters whilst they seem to mostly discuss business, as in another early scene where Paul and his father discuss the looming challenge before them whilst walking between grave markers of their ancestors on the grey and watery world of Caladan that has long been their home and fiefdom. The trouble is despite this approach I never really felt convinced by their family dynamics. Isaac and Ferguson are strong actors and are undoubtedly the right age, but it still feels a little odd seeing them cast as the grizzled patriarch and weirdly hot mother who has a perturbing dynamic with her on-screen son. It doesn’t help that Isaac and Ferguson are both forced to quell their natural charisma to fit into Villeneuve’s pinched, po-faced dramatic style. Villeneuve’s essential approach is one of characters muttering earnestly at one-another in dimly-lit spaces.

What’s surprising about Villeneuve’s Dune is that despite being given a nominal wealth of space to tell the story, it doesn’t really know what to do with it. Despite the simplifications, the script essentially settles for being an exposition machine, with very few flashes of effective and engaging interpersonal detail, like Paul being teased by Gurney whilst being welcomed for the first time into one of the House strategy meetings. It’s the sort of movie that makes you long for the day when a director would spice up an epic with a few dancing girls or something. Villeneuve takes almost exactly as long as Lynch did in telling the story from beginning to the point where Leto finds Fremen housekeeper Shadout Mapes (Golda Rosheuvel) dying, signalling the start of the Harkonnen attack, and then spends the majority of the next hour and twenty minutes of running time on a listless succession of chase scenes Lynch was more effective in compressing. As a fan of the book I’m in a dichotomous position in this regard. Familiarity helps me keep up and indeed a step ahead of everything so I don’t need to expend the mental energy it will undoubtedly cost a newcomer to the material. But it also makes me susceptible to possible boredom when I simply see things being checked off rather than being truly, creatively explored. Unfortunately, that’s what I began to feel watching Villeneuve’s Dune.

The Quebecois Villeneuve emerged as a feature filmmaker with 1998’s August 32nd On Earth, a debut that immediately gained him notice as a talent screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and his French-language follow-ups, Maelstrom (2000), Polytechnique (2009), and Incendies (2010), were all acclaimed and award-garnered, with the middle film stirring some disquiet in portraying an shooting spree at the University of Montreal in 1989. Villeneuve then went Hollywood with the would-be thoughtful, moody thriller Prisoners (2013), sparking a swift rise up the Hollywood totem pole as he followed with the paranoia study Enemy (2013), the drug war drama Sicario (2015), and sci-fi tales Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I haven’t seen Villeneuve’s French-language films: if I had I might have a different perspective on his later stabs at mating art movie postures with popular storytelling. As far as they go, I find Villeneuve a largely insufferable filmmaker. But he’s one who certainly seems to be finding a particular niche in current mainstream cinema discourse similar to those held in the recent past by David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, in that his particular approach seems to impress some and dismay others through a carefully filtered aesthetic sensibility aiming to deliver chic spectacle.

Villeneuve’s mainstream works to date have been defined by this smothering aesthetic matched to storylines that are generally far less deep and intensive than the stylistic cues insist they are. Those cues, including a relentlessly drab colour palette and droning, booming music scores, seem to me hallmarks of a particular brand of modern quasi-seriousness even when, upon close inspection, there’s little substance to back them up in Villeneuve’s films. I still cringe when I remember how the plot of Arrival was explained by a randomly info-dumping Chinese general to the time-unmoored heroine, or Sicario affected to be a grim investigation of the drug war only to become a ridiculous revenge drama, and Prisoners waded through highly unsubtle character signposting and emblazoned themes even whilst affecting a glaze of knit-browed profundity. Like Blade Runner 2049, Dune sees Villeneuve being relatively restrained, but there’s still something relentlessly pummelling and joyless about his filmmaking to me. Dune has been sucked dry of all its exotic strangeness and dynamism, all its semi-surreal, florid liveliness, with a kind of dry, pseud efficiency in its place. “My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low,” Chani (Zendaya), Kynes’ daughter and a Fremen warrior, is heard in voiceover at the very outset. This immediately evinces an attempt by the filmmakers to combine exposition and low-key genre poetry, a method that continues throughout. But the unconvincing clumsiness of the line, the lack of actual, proper expressive language and specificity apparent in it, also neatly demonstrate how this method fails.

Rather than the artists who provided beloved illustrations and cover art for the books, like Bruce Pennington and John Schoenherr, Villeneuve moves to take inspiration from more European styles in sci-fi illustration, with a particular emulation of the work of Jean ‘Moebius’ Girard in the oddball costuming and weirdly-shaped spaceships, designs which, as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) which had actual Moebius design work proved, just don’t work very well off the page. But that’s a relatively minor issue. It’s in the specifics that Villeneuve really falls down. The actual uses of the spice and way the substance informs the entire social, political, and economic structure of Herbert’s universe are more or less dismissed in a couple of pithy lines of dialogue, and so we’ve subtly but firmly shifted from any attempt to convey the depth of Herbert’s text in favour of simply delivering its most basic story points. Sometimes this can be a wise move – Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked in large part because whilst it happily included much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s esoterica, it knew how to impart it in a fashion that wove around rather than interrupted the central story. The trouble is Dune doesn’t work in the same way. Tolkien deliberately structured his stories so you didn’t have to worry about the quasi-angelic background of the many magical figures including Sauron, Gandalf, and Balrog, even if to understand all that does make things more explicable: nonetheless we intrinsically grasp their function. Similarly, in Dune, it’s possible to approach it without thinking too much about the larger structure and historical meaning of organisations like the Bene Gesserit and the guild of mutated Navigators who need the spice to fuel their precognitive ability to steer colossal spaceships.

But – and this is a large but – to not understand those things means to miss what’s important and interesting about Dune as a mythos and as a work of speculative fiction. If you haven’t read the books you’ll have no idea from this movie about the Navigators; whilst the function and method of the Mentats are depicted through Thufir, just exactly what they are and why they exist is likewise impossible to properly deduce, nor why the flying machines and spacecraft are conspicuously missing guidance computers. Anyone who’s read the book knows about the Butlerian Jihad, which saw all robots and artificial intelligences destroyed and forbidden in the universe, and obliging human beings to stretch their abilities to limits unthought-of in our current time, most of it allowed by the spice. Herbert’s real fascination was with human intelligence and physical development as our vehicle, for which our machines are mere externalised devices. I didn’t sense any real intellectual curiosity in Villeneuve’s Dune, nor desire to put across Herbert’s world beyond what’s strictly necessary to the plot. In Villeneuve’s vision, the spice is reduced from a substance of vast, fantastical conceptual importance to the mere, tinny metaphor for fossil fuel it started as, combined with a kind of light hallucinogen. Villeneuve’s renderings of Paul’s visions are the most banal imaginable, consisting of lots of adolescent yearning glimpses of Chani, swanning about in flowing garb, and occasional glimpses of tussling warriors.

This tendency, to mine the prosaic from the visionary, is an awfully common failing of a lot of recent genre film and television in the contemporary obsession with grounding and pseudo-realism. With Villeneuve it’s particularly acute, having already taken Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and tapped it for straightforward plotting and self-consciously obvious thematics, reducing the original’s unique dreamlike palette and narrative density to just another plodding blend of action movie and TV commercial-like sentimentality in its odes to human qualities. Similarly, there’s a monotony to the acting and dramatic beats here. The introduction of the Harkonnens themselves, including the bulbous, infinitely malevolent Baron Harkonnen himself (Stellan Skarsgard), his henchman Raban (Dave Bautista), and Mentat Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian), takes the mumbling-in-dark-rooms aesthetic to a logical conclusion: the entire world of the Harkonnens seems to have a lighting problem. The obvious, cliché casting of Skarsgard, swathed in a fat suit, is matched by the equal, exhausting obviousness of the nods to Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now (1979), as Skarsgard strokes his greasy bald pate with monstrous meditation.

The portrayal of the Harkonnens in Lynch’s film has long seemed to me the biggest problem with that work, in trying to graft Lynch’s penchant for leering id-beasts and wild, bristling bullies onto Herbert’s material with its hypnotic fascination with intellectual evil and total amorality. And yet I found myself longing for the vividness of Kenneth McMillan’s Harkonnen and his outsized delight in obscene behaviour, compared to this drab substitution, and Lynch’s most gleefully appalling touches, like giving a poisoning victim a surgically stitched-together cat and rat to milk for an antidote daily, or Raban crushing a small animal and drinking its bodily fluids like orange juice. The closest Villeneuve gets to such twisted flavour is a brief glimpse of some genetic chimera, part humanoid, part spider that his Harkonnens keep as a pet. Yueh was played with some force by Dean Stockwell in Lynch’s film, and his pathos as a man who betrays himself and his friends for the sake of one, desperate tilt at a more personal revenge was allowed to register as he screamed at Harkonnen after being stabbed in the back for his aid, “You think I don’t know what I’ve done? For my wife?” By comparison, Cheng’s Yueh is bland and blasé even as he dies, his motive not suggested until just before he’s killed, one of the many tributaries of potential melodramatic juice reduced to mere plot function in the face of the impassive-grandiose style. There is, that said, a good touch when Harkonnen has Leto prisoner thanks to Yueh’s machinations: Villeneuve has the Duke stripped naked and laid prone before his enemy, a potent little encapsulation of his sudden vulnerability before a truly evil foe. But Lynch’s crazy, disturbing imagination imbued his Dune with something by and large missing from this one. Which is one reason I’ve long felt that Lynch’s Dune is not a perfect adaptation but is perfectly itself, wielding a specificity and, most importantly, a fearlessness of creative passion almost entirely missing from contemporary big-budget cinema.

Not that I want to get bogged down in simply comparing Lynch and Villeneuve’s versions. Villeneuve goes for an aesthetic, full of monumental forms and a kind of medieval minimalism in décor and design, that’s quite different to the tangled Gothicism, Austro-Hungarian martial dress, and madcap Rococo dominant in Lynch’s film, and it’s a look that struck me as more appropriate to the material. And yet Villeneuve’s style of shooting too often has the hyper-sharp, gritty-glossy look of high-end video game cutscenes, particularly in the special effects sequences, although there’s still some genuine awe stoked by visions like the Atreides fleet being disgorged by one of the colossal “heighliner” space transport vessels. His vision of Caladan makes it look like a drizzly patch of New Brunswick – understandable perhaps for Villeneuve – rather than a watery world where the primal power of the ocean matches and opposes the similar power of Arrakis. Villeneuve swaps out a blue filter for Caladan for a grey-brown one on Arrakis, and he makes the desert planet relentlessly dingy and colourless. Villeneuve’s approach has drawn a lot of comparison to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but I can’t see why. David Lean (who was apparently approached to direct the first version at one point, whilst Herbert himself took strong inspiration from T.E. Lawrence’s story) knew how to convey the scale of the desert as well as its physical extremes through his approach to light, framing, and colour – the more brilliantly blue the skies the more relentless the sense of sun beating down, of exposure and dire physical straits. Villeneuve makes all of his shots colourless, his skies filled with omnipresent dust, and his desert looks, well, rather tepid.

One telling disparity in Villeneuve’s take on Blade Runner was where Scott’s street scenes were teeming with life carefully conveyed not just through hiring extras and costuming them but with the camera’s sense of how to pick up that life, Villeneuve’s felt stodgy and depopulated. There’s a similar lack of any real energy and sense of lifestyle in his approach here. Here everyone seems afraid to raise their voices too high or gesticulate too much lest they disturb the carefully composed symmetry of the shots. There’s genuine visual ingenuity sometimes, that said. Herbert’s cleverest touches, like the ban on nuclear weapons and the personalised force-fields that have returned warfare back to a matter of who’s best at hand-to-hand combat rather than one of projectile weapons, helped at once to give a clever legitimacy to the old-school space opera’s Wagner-in-space sensibility, whilst also feeling coherent and well-thought-through in terms of its imagined future’s construction, where the path to victory for both villains and heroes means threading a path through seemingly impregnable bulwarks of technology and behaviour. The visualisation of the fights between force-field-wearing warriors are good, but only when dealing with one-on-one fights. The big, tragic combat between the invading Harkonnens and Atreides host is oddly curtailed and lacking much dynamism in staging, the sort of moment that really makes you wish some ebullient meathead like Zack Snyder or Neil Marshall was directing rather than a hyperfussy aesthete. Herbert’s ornithopters, the usual mode of flight on Arrakis, long seemed one of those ideas easy to imagine and write but just about impossible to effectively film, are realised nonetheless with true visual élan, with Villeneuve’s take offering helicopters with side-mounted blade that beat like dragonfly-like wings. There are some truly beautiful images scattered throughout, testifying to the cinematographer Greig Fraser’s masterful talents, including the striking prologue depicting Fremen resistance against the Harkonnen spice miners during a sandstorm.

And of course there’s the sandworms, the massive beasts that infest the sands of Arrakis and provide an omnipresent threat, as well as a potential source of power, and are connected to the spice. Villeneuve handles the first scene involving a worm well, in part because it’s a strong suspense situation: Leto and his team, being flown over the desert by Kynes, spot a worm advancing on a manned spice harvesting machine and race to save the crew before the unimaginably large creature swallows the harvester up. Modern special effects are more than equal to the task of realising the worms, and there’s a nice tightening of the suspense as Paul is abruptly distracted during the rescue as he breathes in the unrefined spice and is plunged into a visionary state, demanding Gurney fetch him, the two almost getting caught in the liquefying sands caused by the worm’s approach. After this, however, in the subsequent appearance by the worms as one swallows up a team of Imperial “Sardaukar” troops after they’ve executed Kynes in the desert, and another chases after Paul and Jessica, the worms rapidly become familiar and prove a bit dull-looking: whilst obviously better-realised in a technical sense, they never register as effectively nightmarish as Carlo Rambaldi’s creations for Lynch did, particularly in the latter pursuit. Villeneuve’s versions have long hair-like teeth and perfectly round mouths and crinkly, puckered skin that make them look a bit, well, anal, particularly in a very misjudged shot when one pauses it attack and sits centre-frame. Not that this represents some lurch towards Freudian imagery. If Lynch arguably went overboard in trying to tease out the surrealist imagery and dream symbolism inherent in Herbert’s material, Villeneuve’s edition strains in the opposite direction to make everything clean and hard-edged, plunging Herbert back into the regulation techno-fascist style he broke with.

Momoa’s presence, with his innate muscular swagger and obliquely twisting grin, gives the film a thankful jolt of matinee heroism that’s also appropriate for the character, who, as his name suggests, is offered as a kind of holdover of an ancient kind of frontier grit – one reason Herbert kept reviving Duncan over and over in the books. Villeneuve gives him an appropriately spectacular end, something Lynch fumbled rather badly, as he fights a unit of the Sardaukar hunting Paul and Jessica after the Atreides’ downfall, still managing to battle on even after being skewered with a blade. Momoa’s presence is particularly vital as he offsets Chalamet. Chalamet is definitely a current It Boy on the cinema scene with his anime-drawing-of-a-young-man looks, and he’s an actor with great potential – he did, for instance, an excellent job as the compulsory stand-in for the director of A Rainy Day In New York (2020). The film tosses in a ribbing joke about his lack of muscular manhood, but it doesn’t quite cover up the fact that he feels wrong in the role, whereas Kyle MacLachlan, whatever else you can say about him, expertly negotiated the shift from eager teenager to fearsome messiah: here Chalamet kept reminding me a little too keenly of his character in Lady Bird (2018) as a gangly brat who read a Marxist text once, here with a few added taekwondo lessons. One problem is that Villeneuve’s relentless approach to the style means the only moment where Paul feels at all boyish is when he first meets Duncan on screen, displaying a smile reserved for a kind of older brother or alternative father hero figure. Later in the film when he’s called upon to display emerging grit and gravitas he falls totally flat.

A more obvious problem with Dune: Part One is there in the title. We don’t get a complete story here, and the point where Villeneuve and company choose to leave off is at once fairly natural but also tormenting only in being anticlimactic. Villeneuve ends not on a cliffhanger but at a relatively lackadaisical story juncture, as Paul and Jessica are accepted into the Fremen fold after Paul finally meets Chani, and he is obliged to kill a Fremen, Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), when the offended and xenophobic warrior challenges him to a duel, a fight that establishes Paul really does have a deadly streak as well as training. This provides a solid fight scene that nonetheless caps off the multimillion dollar blockbuster about some kind of war in the stars with a knife fight. “This is only the beginning,” Chani says in a trailer-ready line, whilst looking and sounding just like a sophomore at a SoCal performing arts school. The time Dune: Part One spent on the shelf awaiting post-COVID release is telling as Zendaya still looks rather young and pouchy-cheeked, with no sign of the impressive maturity she brought to bear in this year’s Malcolm & Marie – not that she’s in the film long enough to make much impression either way. Hans Zimmer matches Villeneuve’s style perfectly in his scoring, alternating drones and ululating songstresses and throbbing-propulsive, drum-thumping cues in a succession of current scoring clichés. Zimmer’s scores are inseparable from the contemporary blockbuster scene, and more specifically from the way movies are sold now: Zimmer’s work maintains a perfect synergy with the art of modern movie trailers, and in effect his work essentially does advertising for the movie within itself, refusing any kind of lyrical invitation in an imaginative universe but instead twisting the viewer’s wrist to find it all grand and darkly thrilling.

Herbert nodded to the early history of science fiction with Dune, with quite a bit of Flash Gordon and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars tales in its makeup as well as more sophisticated concerns and investigation of mythopoeic patterns. So to a certain extent it’s fair enough that the movie emphasises this aspect, even if it doesn’t do it all that well. But Herbert deconstructed that kind of old-fashioned adventure tale at the same time, commenting on what’s often seen as the quasi-imperialist assumptions of stories where outsiders, usually white and western, become leaders of far-flung populaces, whilst his narrative both mimicked and commented upon the power of messianic mythology, uncovering links with twentieth century totalitarian movements. Herbert kept in mind things like the way Moses’ emergence as prophet and nation leader led directly to a war of extermination after the wanderings in the desert waged upon occupants of the Promised Land, and saw the way such narratives are pitched as self-justifying for aggrieved nations. He also had an evident fascination for Arabic legend and culture, appropriate considering the story’s basis in the current reality of the oil boom in the Middle East, but also tackled in a complicating fashion: Herbert’s future is a great melting pot of all past human culture and identity, where religions, creeds, and races have long since all formed into a melange as rich as the spice. The Fremen are hardly supposed to be mere stand-ins for Arabic peoples, but a society that’s retained and transmitted a classical culture as appropriate to their lifestyle. This is, after all, once again supposed to be science fiction. Villeneuve’s choice nonetheless is to hammer home the relevance and the more stolid side of the fantasy by emphasising the Fremen culture as quasi-Arabic, which manages at once to be more of a sop to emphasising contemporary parable but also more retrograde and confused in the contained politics.

As for Paul’s dread of the potential of unleashing a genocidal holy war, Villeneuve signals, at least, unlike Lynch who avoided and indeed entirely contradicted it, that he plans to deal with this consequence, but still only has Paul very quickly mutter some malarkey about holy war along with some flash-cut visions of a bloody hand. Lynch’s theatrical cut was forced to compress the second half of the novel in extremely ungainly fashion, so in this regard Villeneuve has left himself plenty of room to deal with the oncoming deluge of fresh weirdness, including Paul’s self-inflicted visionary trip to emerge as Kwisatz Haderach, the arrival of his sister Alia, the bloodthirsty adult in a child’s body, and the great battle for control of Arrakis and the Empire, as well as the bleak side to Paul’s ascension. And yet I’m also forced to ponder how Villeneuve will drain these of their perverted fervour. The ultimate impression Dune: Part One left me with was of something utilitarian, a work that seems to have finally managed, judging by the box office and general reception, the task of successfully selling Herbert’s creation to a broad audience, and indeed it’s worth celebrating insofar as it finally revives hope for franchise blockbusters more ambitious and mature than superhero movies. But the price paid for this is pyrrhic, as too much of what made Herbert’s work lasting and interesting has been sacrificed, and what’s left in its place is occasionally striking but essentially inert. Moreover, it forces me to say something I never, ever expected to say: Lynch’s version remains the superior.

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1980s, Auteurs, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie, War

The Keep (1983)

Director / Screenwriter: Michael Mann

By Roderick Heath

The Keep’s very first shot, as if tracing the path of a falling angel, describes a seemingly endless downwards pan, descending from grey, storm-ridden sky to jagged pine forests clinging to the flanks of soaring mountains, before finally settling on a convoy of grey-painted Wehrmacht trucks labouring their way up a narrow mountain pass, set to the throbbing, alien textures of Tangerine Dream’s score evoking both the roll of thunder and the chugging of the straining motors and mimicking the narcotising effect on the German soldiers rolling up the road. A cigarette lit in ultra-close-up, a shot of caterpillar tracks churning along the gravelly road, swooning visions of the mist-drapped mountain peaks. Immediately, director Michael Mann, making his second feature after Thief (1981), deposits the viewer within a dreamlike space, offering a classical Horror genre setting and motif in journeying from the mundane world into one of oneiric remove, but wrapped not in traditional genre style cues, but a hard shell of burgeoning 1980s high style cinema. The year, a title card informs us, is 1941, with the Nazi onslaught reaching its climax with armies closing in on Moscow. In this place, the Dinu Pass in the Carpathian Mountains, Captain Klaus Woermann, embodied in rugged, sagging melancholy by Jürgen Prochnow, leads his men into a tiny Romanian hamlet clinging to the jagged walls of the pass’s highest reaches, to occupy and garrison an enigmatic medieval fortification there.

Actually entering the village, penetrating a veil of mist to behold a medieval hamlet, sees Mann shifts to slow motion and the score to spacy, mysterious strains as Woermann surveys this piece of another, older world cut off from the sturm-und-drang of the warlike moment and, seemingly, whole other intervening centuries. And the Keep itself, a featureless trapezoidal block of grey brick, looming over the village and a deep gorge. One of Woermann’s men complains about this unimportant detail when Germany’s soldiers are near to total victory, but Woermann assures him the real fighting is over and Germany is now master of Europe: “Does that enthrall you?” he enquires with theatrical enthusiasm. Woermann’s own ambivalence over fighting in a war that most certainly does not enthral him is something that resolves even as his situation becomes ever more mysterious and terrible. Woermann and his men enter the Keep and begin setting up their garrison. But Woermann notes, however, the building is not a defensive structure, but designed like a prison. The walls are lined with 108 silvery, crucifix-like markings that the Keep’s caretaker, Alexandru (Morgan Sheppard), warns are not to be touched, a taboo he insists upon with deadly seriousness although he doesn’t know why and can’t report any bad events in the Keep save the general refusal of visitors to stay through the night: “Then what drives people out in the middle of a rainy night?” Woermann questions. “Dreams?” the caretaker replies.

Since the time of its release, The Keep could scarcely seem more benighted. Despised by F. Paul Wilson, author of its source novel, it was also soon disowned by Mann, furious at the way Paramount Pictures threw the film away after losing faith in the project. Special effects master Wally Veevers died during production, leaving the planned spectacular finale in uneditable disarray. Finally the film proved a calamitous bomb at the box office and was generally dismissed by critics, although many Horror genre fans and scholars grasped its unique and fascinating aesthetic. Mann’s active role in keeping the film hidden away, refusing to let it be released on DVD for many years, only helped its slow accruing of near-legendary mystique for anyone who could catch it on TV or had access to its early VHS and laserdisc releases. The Keep has evolved into one of my absolute favourite films, and its evident flaws are an indivisible part of its compelling makeup. After success with the telemovie The Jericho Mile (1979), Mann made a terrific debut as a feature filmmaker with Thief, a movie that commenced Mann’s career-long aesthetic preoccupation with trying to blend classical genre cinema with a hypermodern, dramatically distilled approach, trying to place as much of the weight of the storytelling and ambience fall on his rigorously constructed imagery that often nudges a kind of neo-expressionistic minimalism. This approach generally suits his preference for tough, stoic heroes, beings who still have some of the toey instinctiveness of forest animals even in the densest urban jungle.

When, for his second film, Mann chose to make a Horror movie, he took a similarly essentialist approach, trying to make a movie describing the idea of a Horror movie as much as the thing itself. He stripped out almost all of the background lore of Wilson’s novel and trying to convey a sense of dread and lurking menace through careful visualisation, to make a fable of pure menace and mood. Mann shot most of The Keep in Shepperton Studios whilst building the Romanian village and the Keep’s exterior in a Welsh quarry, but Mann’s notorious later habit of causing budget overruns with his exacting shooting style was apparently already emerging. But, again as he would later, Mann’s exacting reach for effect justifies itself. The early shots see him weaving his style in a series of elusive directorial flourishes: that opening shot conveys place and time but relentlessly pushes the eye down a vertical access, giving little sense of the surrounds. A lake surface mirrors back the sky, turning the grand space into a trap. Woermann’s first glimpses of the village are dreamy, punch-drunk, barely liminal. The Keep itself is hardly glimpsed apart from the looming grey gateway, with only two proper wide exterior shots of the structure in the whole film. This approach lets Mann skirt location and special effects shortfalls, of course, but also conditions the viewer to a zone unmoored from any sure sense of geography and spatial stability, just as Woermann beholds a scene out of the Middle Ages, unmoored in time.

The Keep itself presents a cultural, architectural, and military conundrum: the locals who maintain it have no real idea of how old it is, who pays for its upkeep, or what its purpose it ever served. Woermann’s soldierly eye notices that for what seems to be a defensive structure it’s built inside out, with easily scalable exterior walls and the largest, strongest stone blocks inside, more like a prison. Rumours start to grip Woermann’s more avaricious men, including Pvt Lutz (John Vine), that the crosses are made of silver and other treasures might be hidden in the Keep: Lutz tries to break off one of the crosses only to receive watch detail for a week from the irate Woermann. During the night, as Steiner stands bored and lonely watch, one of the crosses begins emitting an eerily bright blue light, and looking closer at it Lutz realises that this cross does indeed seem to be silver. He fetches another man on watch, Otto (Jona Jones), and the two men claw out the great granite block the cross is affixed to, revealing a narrow tunnel that Lutz crawls into. Mann’s stylistic oddness continues in this sequence, as he distorts the avaricious franticness of the two soldiers with slow-motion shots of them running to and fro amidst hazily backlit shots, all bound together in strange manner by the use of Tangerine Dream’s theme “Logos” on the soundtrack, imbuing a propulsive mood, if retaining a spacy, alien texture inherent in that classic synthesiser sound, of a unit with Mann’s recurrent passion with intensely rhythmic image-audio match-ups, the flagrant anachronism of the scoring heightening the disorientating texture.

Lutz crawls into the passage and dislodges a block, only to almost fall into a vast, dark space beyond, saved because he had Otto tie a strap to his waist. In one of the greatest shots in all of fantastic cinema, Mann’s camera retreats a seemingly infinite distance away from the soldier’s dwindling torch into the furthest depths of the abyss, a space which contains mysterious ruins of some ancient structures. Once the long pullback shot finally concludes, a surge of light swoops into the frame and coalesces into ball of light that rises up to meet the faint torchlight. Otto is almost pulled into the tunnel by a sudden, violent jerking, and when he drags his comrade out, finds only a steaming, headless trunk, before being flung away with bone-shattering force as a mysterious power floods out of the shaft and infests the Keep. Mann cuts with headlong force to the antipathetic force stirred to action: Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn), awakening in a bed somewhere in Greece, eyes glowing and surging energy drawing into his body, stirred by the eruption of the entity in the Keep. Glaekus rises from bed, packs his belongings including a long wooden case, and heads to the docks of Piraeus where he bribes a fishing boat captain to take him to the Romanian coast: Mann films the boat’s voyage into dawn light in a languorously beautiful vignette.

Walking the line between intriguing hints and frustrating vagueness is always a tricky art, and for many Mann went too far with The Keep. But it’s precisely the film’s allusive sense of arcane and ageless struggle, and its near-ethereal, carefully reductive vision of perfect forms of good and evil, that makes it something unique, the hints of cosmic battles and unknowable history at the heart of the story, a vast mythic-emblematic Manichaeism pointedly set against the more immediate and definable evil of Nazism, the heart of darkness nested inside the European übermenschen dream. Paramount might well have hoped the film would prove a Horror movie variant on the supernatural anti-Nazi revenge fantasy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Most broadly and obviously, the film presents a variation on the classic motif of a haunted castle. Wilson’s novel presented a Lovecraft-tinted rewrite of that founding tome of modern Horror, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a work that’s retained much of its popularity for the way, published just before the dawn of the 20th century, it charted so many of the oncoming age’s faultlines. Wilson made more literal the connection between Dracula and the paranoid impression of dread power and evil rising in the east of Europe it articulated, by moving the setting to World War II and drawing together crosscurrents of folklore and politics at the moment.

Mann, whilst divesting much of the novel’s superstructure, had his own take on the same idea evidently in mind. In particular, Mann seemed interested in investigating through visual and thematic refrains the link suggested by German film historian Siegfried Krakauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler between the psychic anxieties communicated in the imagery of classic German Expressionist films and the oncoming fascist mentality. The German Expressionist era was replete with contradictions, like future Nazi Paul Wegener’s obsession with the Jewish myth of the Golem that caused him to make two films on the subject, and the Nazi leaders’ worship of the monumental aesthetic laid down by the half-Jewish Fritz Lang. Krakauer’s ideas had their highly dubious aspect, but Mann found how to put them to dynamic use, making The Keep perhaps the closest thing anyone has made to a truly modern take on the Expressionist Horror style, and tethering it to a story that specifically offers meditation on the Nazi mindset and questions of how to resist it. The story purposefully unfolds simultaneous to WWII’s supreme tipping point of the furthest Nazi advance during the invasion of the Soviet Union, and the drama enacted in the Keep is both far more intimate than the war and far larger, a confrontation of primeval forces.

Mann’s casting notably has the Eastern European characters speak with American accents, to emphasise their distinctness from the Germans, who are played by a mix of British, Irish, and German actors. Mann also shifted away from the novel’s use of vampirism, which he found silly: once the entity trapped within the grand cavern is unleashed into the Keep, it begins killing Woermann’s men by absorbing their life essence, leaving charred and withered corpses. The entity, appearing after a time as a writhing pillar of fog around a stem of skeletal parts and blood vessels, builds substance out of its harvested victims. The idea of a monster slowly assembling itself a physical form echoes back to Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and would be used again in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999). Woermann’s messages of distress soon bring not relocation as he hopes, but an SS Einstaz Kommando detachment under the command of Sturmbahnführer Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), which steams into the village, takes a number of hostages, and shoots them before their horrified fellow villagers. Kaempffer promises of more retaliation against them if any more Germans are killed. The irate Woermann, who is ordered by Kaempffer not to interfere, points out that Kaempffer has just killed citizens of an allied state.

Kaempffer nonetheless begins using all his arrogant prowess as a bully and killer to get to the bottom of the mystery, using terror tactics to root out presumed partisans. “Something else is killing us,” Woermann states in riposte: “And if it doesn’t care about the lives of three villagers? If it is like you? Then does your fear work?” When some mysterious words appear carved in a wall of the Keep near another dead soldier, the village priest, Father Mikhail Fonescu (Robert Prosky) recognises that the words are not written in any living language, and suggests the only way Kaempffer might get them translated is to find Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen), a scholar and expert in Romanian history and linguistics, who grew up in the village and once made a study of the Keep. Problem: Cuza is Jewish, and has recently been rounded up for deportation. Cuza and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are at that moment sitting in a depot with other Jews, Gypsies and sundry undesirables awaiting transportation. Cuza is crippled by a degenerative disease that makes him look far older than he really is, and Eva acts as his carer.

Kaempffer’s command brings them both to the Keep, where the SS commander taunts Cuza with talk of place he was just about to be taken to, a place with two doors out, one of them a chimney: “So you had better find a way to be of use to me in three days.” Cuza recognises the language of the writing on the wall as a language dead for 500 years, and reads, “I will be free,” a message Kaempffer immediately interprets as a rebel declaration. Woermann tries to assure the Cuzas that he might be able to sneak them out of the Keep to a safe hiding place if they can buy enough time by keeping Kaempffer satisfied: “But then again you may not,” Eva comments sceptically. Eva soon attracts the lascivious eye of a couple of the German soldiers, who track her through the Keep after she comes to get food in the mess, and assault her in a dark, lonely corridor. Mann pulls off another of his weird yet potent visual flourishes as he pans down from Eva’s body, suspended between the two would-be rapists, to the leather boot of one soldier, an almost fetishistic contrast of the soft and feminine with macho brutality. As with the appeal to greed that helped set it free, the assault on Eva only stimulates the entity’s appetite as well as its cunning: the entity, now a ball of fire and smoke reminiscent of the one that pursues the hero of Night of the Demon (1957), surges through the Keep’s innards and falls on the soldiers, who disintegrate messily as the entity absorbs them.

Mann lingers on the image of the entity, now with two burning red eye-like orbs attached to a glowing brain stem, peering out of a writhing pillar of mist, carrying Eva with tender-seeming care back to her and her father’s room, a particularly strange distillation of the classic image of the monster and the maiden, whilst the scoring imbues the vision with the overtone of angelic deliverance. The stunned Cuza nonetheless retains his wit and will sufficiently to tell the entity to release his daughter. The entity speaks to Cuza, accusing him of collaborating with the Nazis: Cuza responds vehemently that he’d do anything to stop them, so the entity reaches out and touches him, giving him a shock of energy. When he regains consciousness, Cuza finds that he’s been restored to full health and mobility, and he realises why quickly enough: the entity wants his help to escape the Keep, which still entraps him. When he again encounters the entity, whose name, Molasar (Michael Carter), is only uttered once in the film, the mysterious being refers to the Jews as “my people” and vows to destroy the Nazis if Cuza will help him escape the Keep: Cuza agrees to find a mysterious energy source hidden in the grand cavern, an object Molasar describes as the source of his power and must be removed if he is to leave the Keep’s confines.

Mann’s enigmatic approach to the entity and the supernatural drama emphasises the humans in between ultimate good and evil as enacting gradations. “You believe in Gods, I’ll believe in men,’ Cuza tells Fonescu, and yet both material and emblematic conflicts have to play out to their bitter end. Where Thief had mooted Mann’s fascination for self-enclosed, self-directing protagonists, The Keep introduced his other career-long obsession, one with with doppelgangers, characters sharing similar traits and characters who often find they have surprising kinships, yet are doomed to clash violently because they’ve become, or were born, disciples of opposing creeds. It’s a preoccupation Mann would notably take into Manhunter, which revolves around the hero’s capacity to enter into the mindset of his repulsive quarries, and Heat (1995), where the cop and criminal have more affinity for each-other than anyone else, as well as The Last of the Mohicans (1991), where the heroes and villains are linked but also perfectly distinguished by their responses to loss of home and habitat. Mann would extend his recurrent imagery and implications to the point where he’d shoot Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat (2015) in a way that would make him look strikingly similar to Glenn in this film. In The Keep Mann’s preoccupation is presented in a set of generically rigid yet unstable binaries: Woermann and Kaempffer, representing Nazi Germany’s armed forces and yet divided by completely different characters and philosophies, contrasted with the atheist Cuza and Orthodox priest Fonescu, who’s desperate to do anything to keep his learned friend safe, and gives Cuza a crucifix as a gesture of protective feeling: Cuza hands the cross on to Woermann. In the course of The Keep, the link between the overt evil of the Nazis, particularly Kaempffer, and the entity as manifestation and overlord of their diseased ideals, is constantly reiterated; Woermann likens the twisted psyches of the Nazis to the illogical forms of the Keep’s architecture, and the entity itself no mere stand-in for their sick fantasies but the secret source of them.

As the film unfolds the affinities evolve and twist: Fonescu, under the influence of the evil in the Keep, degenerates into a ranting fanaticism for his creed like Kaempffer, whilst Cuza’s physical prostration is mimicked by Woermann’s moral impotence. At the same time the shaded oppositions cast Woermann as a pawn of the necessities of patriotism in the same way the entity turns Cuza into his Faustian representative: Cuza’s desire to smash the Nazis is realised but as he flexes his fist in his new strength he unconsciously mimics a fascist salute. Behind each set of mirroring protagonists, the eternal champions of light and dark, converging in the Keep. Glenn’s Glaeken is glimpsed making his way to the Dinu Pass, frightening and intimidating a pair of Romanian border guards at a checkpoint when his eyes again flash with brilliant energy as he warns them not to touch the case he has strapped to his motorcycle, a marvellously eerie vignette. Fittingly for a character intended as the pure incarnation of good, the otherworldly Glaeken is also presented as the ne plus ultra of Mannian hero figures: mostly silent, he dominates purely by corporeal presence and baleful charisma, communicated by a stare that seems to x-ray people even when not radiating supernatural energy. Mann had Glenn base his character’s odd, halting, ritualistic speaking style on the vocalisation of electronic musician Laurie Anderson. Glaeken turns up in the village at last making claim to a room in the inn which has been promised to Eva, after Woermann and Cuza outmanoeuvre Kaempffer in getting her out of the Keep. Glaeken the eternal warrior seems to have been left to wander the earth until needed to exterminate Molasar once and for all, and he quickly seduces Eva.

Mann’s debt to William Friedkin as a source of influence on his style – one that would reverse for To Live and Die In L.A. (1986), much to Mann’s displeasure – is apparent in The Keep through borrowing of Tangerine Dream’s pulsing, estranging sonic textures and a visual preoccupation with machines in motion from Sorcerer (1977), and subsuming that film’s subtler sense of atavistic powers working behind the mask of inanimate yet strangely motivated things. Mann’s style is its own thing, that said, to a radical degree. Mann contrives glimpses of grotesque and perplexing things, like the discovery of a dead soldier under the carved words comes in an obliquely framed glimpse of the man’s head fused into the wall, one staring eye amidst a charred black face, and Eva realising she can’t see Glaeken’s reflection in a mirror in what seems a perfectly intimate moment. The colour palette of Alex Thompson’s brilliant photography is mostly reduced to a sprawl of slate greys and blacks and misty whites, tellingly broken up only by the red of the SS Nazi armbands and the glowing eyes of Molasar. The film is full of disorientating jump cuts and discordant camera angles, work to sever a clear sense of chronology and context, as precise measures of time and place cease to be relevant as if within an explosion of the innermost Id, whilst relating back to classic genre cinema and the sense imbued by works from Lang through to Val Lewton of a world gone mad: indeed the cumulative sense of isolated paranoia closely resembles Isle of the Dead (1945), with which it shares a wartime setting and invocation of imminent doom in an isolated locale that seems to have slipped off the edge of the world’s physical and psychic maps.

Molasar meanwhile poses as a saviour to please and manipulate Cuza, who’s desperate to find a way to halt the Nazi onslaught: the Molasar costume, designed by Enki Bilal, an artist for the storied sci-fi and fantasy comic book Heavy Metal, was designed to be reminiscent of Wegener’s Golem with its dark, lumpen, bulbous, stony form, and Molasar, like the Golem of myth, promises to be a righteous weapon defending the faithful and victimised, only to prove a destructive monster. Molasar needs a man like Cuza to release him because, as Glaeken later mentions when he confronts Cuza, only an uncorrupted soul can even approach the imprisoning talisman. McKellen, who after playing D.H. Lawrence in Priest of Love (1981) was having a brief moment as a major film actor long before his eventual resurgence in the mid-1990s, wields a noticeably plummy American accent, but ultimately gives a galvanic, impressively corporal performance in playing an intellectual hero who nonetheless experiences his world physically in his relationship with his wrecked body and frustrated will, and whose transfiguration from angry cripple to empowered and determined avenger has suggestions of both spiritual and erotic overtones – “He touched my body!” he tells Eva in describing his encounter with Molasar. This echoes again in Glaeken’s seduction of Eva, an act that has the flavour of ritual, the lovers become vessels connecting the immortal and mortal, sacred and earthly, flesh and alien substance, culminating in the couple forming themselves into a cruciform.

Prochnow was undoubtedly handed the part of Woermann because of his similar role as the intelligent and humane U-boat captain fighting for an evil cause in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), although Woermann’s ultimately quite a different character, and Prochnow gives a subtly apposite performance. Where the captain was endlessly tough and resourceful in defence of his men and his command whilst maintain open cynicism for their cause, Woermann is already bursting at the seams when he arrives at the Keep, haunted by witnessing SS men slaughtering people in Poznan, and by the wish he’d fought in the international brigades in Spain and had taken a stand against Nazism before it consumed his and everyone else’s lives. His punishment for his failures of nerve is to be stricken with ineffectiveness in protecting his men, relieved only by upbraiding the icily revolted Kaempffer, who ultimately diagnoses Woermann in turn with “the debilitating German disease – sentimental talk.” Woermann describes Kaempffer’s version of strength as having become literal in the Keep, a force of evil beyond imagining, the manifestation of all the sick psyches that have been given guns and carte blanche to slaughter. The clashes between Woermann and Kaempffer are unusually potent rhetorical vignettes thanks in part to the intensity of the two performers, inhabiting archetypal roles, the classic liberal and the perfect fascist: Woermann ferocious in his denunciations of evil but lacking the necessary edge to be truly effective, Kaempffer all too willing to do anything to make the Nazi ideal real, and willing to murder anyone who stands in opposition, including, ultimately, Woermann.

Their clash reaches its climax when Kaempffer furiously shoots Woermann in the back, just as Woermann, hearing his men screaming as Molasar assaults them, grabs up Fonescu’s cross, and he dies with it in his bloody hands. Kaempffer, plucking the cross from Woermann’s bloody hands, heads out into Keep’s atrium only to find all the remaining Germans killed, some fused into the walls, others scattered in smouldering chunks across the floor, their war machines twisted and melted, as if Molasar has become some Picasso-like modern artist working in the medium of stone, steel, and flesh to create mangled interpretations of warfare. Kaempffer is confronted by Molasar, causing him to drop to the ground wailing for Jesus to protect him, brandishing the crucifix. Molasar seems momentarily afraid of the icon, which resembles the talisman that holds him in the keep, so Kaempffer gathers up enough of his customary arrogacne to stand and face the thing. “What are you?” he demands. “Where do you come from?” the amused hulk asks: “I am you.” He takes the cross from Kaempffer, crushes it, and casually sucks the life from him with the same pitiless ease with which Kaempffer murdered, the Nazi releasing a bone-chilling shriek as he does. This is a brilliant moment where even the utterly despicable Kaempffer earns a flash of cringe-inducing empathy in the face of such pure, inhuman malevolence.

Mann’s hope to make a parable about fascism might well have been a tad pretentious, but he succeeds within the film’s dream logic as Mann paints in visual textures the symbolic drama he’s describing. Molasar literally feeds off the darker desires in the men who release him, and in turn stirs people to more and more destructive acts. Kaempffer’s total embrace of Nazi ideology and methods makes him the human equivalent of Molasar, aiming to build “the next thousand years of history” on the bones of necessary sacrifice, but Molasar even uses Cuza’s own best qualities against him by posing as a messianic saviour figure simply by appealing to his righteous anger and hunger for revenge. The blackened, shrivelled, charred bodies of the Germans ironically resemble holocaust and atomic bomb victims, the casual victims of the war’s unleashed apocalyptic logic. Mann’s depiction of the Keep’s architecture, a strange space of uncertain angles and spaces above the mammoth, black, atavistic cavern, presents an ingenious visualisation of what Woermann describes as “twisted fantasies” of Nazism, growing out of the Nietzschean abyss, the abyss that looks back and sees right through all civilised and intelligent pretences. In this manner, Mann expands on Kracauer’s key concept of the Expressionist cinema movement as directly expressing the collective neurosis gripping Germany after World War I, which finally malformed into susceptibility to Nazism.

Mann’s concept of the Keep nods then back to the Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919) and Metropolis (1926), films that offered their stylised physical world as discrete emanations of human will and mind, beset by insane and sclerotic sectors. The Keep’s interior recalls the cavernous zones of Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1923), and the windmill in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) where the good doctor performed his experiments, with alternation of spaces vast and cramped, soaring and warped, fashioned with rough and inhospitable brickwork. In most classic Expressionist Horror the weird world presented in them was the world nonetheless for the characters who exist in them, except notably in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari which laid down the template but also revoked it by presenting the key drama as the ravings of a madman. Mann does something similar in the opening moments of The Keep by emphasising Woermann’s act of seeing the village and the Keep, presenting his drama as subliminal, with a sense of passing through a discrete veil between waking and oneiric states, and everything encountered beyond there is operating on an unreal level. Whilst Kracauer’s thesis that Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari expressed a collective wish for a paternal dictator to restore shape to reality remains largely unconvincing, Mann puts it good use, correlating the perverse mental projections of the Expressionist style with the reality-distorting influence of Molasar. At the same time The Keep is also a movie that was, in 1983, a work defining a stylistic moment in moviemaking, which it quite obviously belongs to with its obsessive use of diffused lighting effects and backlit shots, as well as the dreamy slow motion and music: Mann follows Das Boot not just in casting Prochnow but in annexing its blithely anachronistic electronic score.

It’s often hard to exactly pinpoint in a compromised work like The Keep where exactly directorial intention and jarring interference diverge: what is apparently true is that Mann was forced to cut the film down from two hours to just over an hour and half. Eva’s swift seduction by Glaeken is often taken to be one sign of editing, but frankly it seems to me like one of the more purely Mannian elements of the film: near-instantaneous fusion of lost and needy souls is common in his movies, like John Dillinger’s swift claiming of Billie Frechette in Public Enemies (2009). There are however snippets of interaction between Eva and Glaeken in the film’s trailer that certainly suggest their scenes were cut down. The rough transition around the one-hour mark more clearly demonstrates interference. What’s presumably supposed to be the insidious infiltration of the village by Molasar’s influence comes on far too suddenly, particularly Fonescu’s pivot from kindly, good-humoured friend of Cuza to a ranting loony who barks zealous scripture at him. Soon after, in a moment difficult to parse on initial viewings Eva goes to Fonescu for aid only to find he’s sacrificed a dog on the altar of his church and is drinking its blood from a goblet. There was also a scene of Alexandru being murdered by his sons with an axe.

Given Mann’s stylisation, however, the jagged editing and resulting elisions really only reinforce the generally unmoored mood of the tale, the sense of obscene things lurking in the corner of the eye and numinous forces working relentless influence on the merely human. What was lost from the film through cutting, as well as some of the integrity of the last act, was Mann’s attempt to film the idea of evil as a miasmic influence, meant to mimic the fascist sway picking at the stitches of society and stampeding the world towards barbarian ruin. On the other hand, most of that stuff is supernal to the essential drama: Kaempffer and Woermann’s deaths transfer the weight of the story on Cuza and Eva. Moreover, it’s apparent that when faced with cutting the film, Mann often chose to jettison plot sequences to concentrate on moments commanding his bleary and submerged sense of atmosphere – that long shot of the fishing boat sailing into the dawn, for instance, kept instead of a moment taken from the book where Glaeken kills the captain of the boat who tries to doublecross him. Glenn, the top-billed actor, is nonetheless barely in The Keep for most of its first half, and even when he does arrive at the Keep he remains detached, ambiguous: authentic good is as alien as pure evil.

Glaeken seems to wield some sort of psychic power over Eva, brushing a hand over her eyes to make her sleep as they together in bed, a subtler but equally coercive force to the one Molasar wields. Glaeken senses through Magda the nature of her father’s compact with Molasar, and when Cuza takes a chance to leave the Keep with the German guards insensible under Molasar’s influence, Glaeken warns him about Molasar’s true nature and need. Cuza refuses to believe him, and drops hints about his presence to Kaempffer, who immediately sends some of his men to bring him in. When Eva frantically protests the arrest and gets into a tussle with the soldiers, Glaeken, to protect her, begins tossing the soldiers about like nine-pins, only to be machine-gunned: splotches of luminous green blood appear all over his torso and he refuses to die, until he plunges into the ravine and finishing up sprawled on a ledge where the Nazis presume him dead. Molasar’s subsequent slaughter of the remaining Germans clears the way for Cuza to descend into the cavern and locate the talisman, which he then carries back to the surface, whilst Glaeken revives and begins climbing the jagged ravine wall.

Mann offers one of his signature sequences here, a mesmerically constructed climactic running montage set to intensifying music, later exemplified by the likes of the hero’s Iron Butterfly-scored dash to the rescue in Manhunter and the clifftop chase in The Last of the Mohicans. Mann cuts between Glaeken hauling himself up the ravine face, still covered in glowing green blood (a touch notably recycled by Predator, 1986), whilst Cuza retrieves the talisman, which Molasar can’t even look at. Cuza climbs up through the cavern, a vast, eerie space filled with unknowably ancient ruins and signs of mystique-ridden history, all set music sampling operatic choruses and a church bell-like propelling rhythm. Striding down a corridor as he re-enters the Keep, Cuza’s progress is marked by the crosses on the wall glow in reaction to the talisman’s passing. Glaeken, after escaping the ravine, opens the case he carried to the Keep and removes what appears to be a simple metal tube, actually a weapon capable of destroying Molasar. This passage is one of Mann’s greatest units of filmmaking, and reaches its apotheosis as Cuza reaches the atrium, only to meet a dazed Eva, who tries to stop him removing the talisman. Molasar, watching on as the two struggle, commands Cuza to kill her and continue out.

As if in humanistic rewrite of the Abraham and Isaac myth, Cuza turns on the monster and demands of it, “Who are you that I should prove myself by killing my daughter?” before insisting that if the talisman is Molasar’s, he should be able to take it out himself. This marvellous climactic moment closes the loop on the moral drama before the supernatural battle can occur, as Cuza’s faith in men is proven right by his own deed, refuting the famous test of Abraham’s faith whilst sticking up for the nobility of the reasoning person. McKellen’s challenge to the monster, shouting “Take it!” with the ferocity of hero facing down a demon, is every bit as epic as McKellen’s confrontation in the guise of Gandalf with Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring some seventeen years later. Infuriated, Molasar reduces Cuza to his crippled state again, but before he can kill Cuza and Eva, Glaeken walks in with his cosmic bazooka, fitting the talisman into its muzzle and unleashing energy rays that charge the crosses and drive Molasar back into the Keep. Of all the sequences in The Keep the finale was the most crudely curtailed by Veever’s death, production quagmire, and Mann’s own creative uncertainty. What was intended to be an epic showdown was reduced to a straightforward scene where Glaeken, despite knowing that “when he goes, I go,” as he tells Eva earlier, nonetheless confronts Molasar with the intention of annihilating him.

Mann interpolates flash visions that hint at alien origins for Glaeken, whose physiognomy changes to match Molasar’s (Molasar already resembling Glaeken in turn in his complete form, nudging the refrain of dualistic kinship), and a close-up of his eyes as he wields the energy weapon sees a kind of mesh grid has been exposed on them. When Molasar tries to hit his foe with an energy pulse as Glaeken glances to make sure the Cuzas are safe, Glaeken responds by blasting a hole through Molasar, who returns to a formless state and is sucked back into the cavern. Glaeken, after giving a last, forlorn gesture to Eva, is then sucked in after him, disappearing through the cavern door amidst blinding white light. And yet, once again, apart from the rather jagged edit in the brief combat of the two beings, the climax feels more consistent with the movie as it stands than a more drawn-out fight would have. The proper climax of the story we’ve been told is Cuza’s challenge to Molasar, proving that Molasar cannot ultimately corrupt everyone. Glaeken’s arrival merely delivers the coup-de-grace, although this comes complete with a memorable vision of his weapon gathering power, pulling in energy with a rising whir before unleashing primeval force.

Mann instead, typically, places the weight of the scene’s power and meaning on the intensity of the gestures and visuals, particularly in Glenn’s deliberately stone-faced yet delicately plaintive characterisation as Glaeken finally proves he’s a true white knight, fearlessly eliminating the evil despite knowing it will cost him everything, leaving behind Eva screaming in dismay. A TV reedit of the film, screened a few years after The Keep’s theatrical release, sported a restored coda based on the novel’s ending, in which Eva descends into the cavern and finds Glaeken still alive there, restored to mortal form. This was excised from the theatrical release, an odd move in itself, as presumably movie studios would usually take the more clearly upbeat ending. The movie proper instead concludes on an enigmatic note, as Fonescu and other villagers, now free of the evil influence, rush to help the Cuzas, and Mann offers a final freeze frame of Eva staring back into the Keep, as if hoping, or sensing, Glaeken is still within, still existing in some form. Again, Mann’s choice here prizes evocation over literalism, with the surging, soulful music and the image of Eva capturing an iconic impression, of triumph bought at a cost, and love as strong as death. The Keep is undoubtedly an untidy, misshapen work, but it’s also a uniquely potent and densely packed work of brilliance, and to my mind close to ideal of what a Horror movie should be.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy

Jungle Cruise (2021)

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Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriters: Glenn Ficarra, Michael Green, John Requa

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…you’ll thank me.

The latest attempt by Disney to spin one of their theme park rides into a narrative, following their very successful Pirates of the Caribbean series, Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise opens with a prologue detailing the disappearance of the legendary conquistador Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), who as the movie has it was lost whilst seeking the Tears of the Moon, a legendary flowering tree growing in the Amazon Jungle and which supposedly has incredible healing properties. Flash forward to 1916. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is the indomitable, brilliant female scientist bucking the male establishment – is there any other kind? – who wants to realise her father’s dream of discovering the Tears of the Moon. MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) is her brother, who she has deliver an address to some snooty scientific society – the film won’t say which one – essentially as a distraction whilst she breaks into a workroom and steals a priceless artefact, an arrowhead needed to access the tree, which Lily hopes to find using the historical map her father left that supposedly shows the way to the tree’s location.

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Lily manages to abscond with the arrowhead, eluding a German-accented man (Jessie Plemons) visiting the society for some reason and decides to try and impede her getaway. He promptly slays all the men in the room because the man who showed him in uses his real name, a la Frank in Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), which apparently the screenwriters watched once. You see, he’s Prince Joachim, the youngest son of Kaiser Wilhelm, and he was trying to steal the same relic. Gasp, might the rather recognisable woman seen trying to sneak in there a few moments earlier, and created an elaborate diversion to facilitate it, be suspected of the murders and be sought by the police? Ha, no, this little thing of a few dead archaeologists in the middle of London is of no consequence; such things don’t raise an eyebrow, any more than a German prince being at large in England in the middle of the Great War, or gentlemen being invited to give speeches to snooty scientific organisations without rehearsing what they’re going to say. Lily doesn’t even bother going on the search for the relic until her brother’s started screwing up the distracting speech. Next thing we know she’s in South America, looking for a boat to take her in the jungle.

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Soon she encounters Frank Wolff (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), down-on-his-luck everyman skipper who makes a living ferrying tourists around the river. It seems that despite the war going on there were a very large number of very proper English tourists hanging around the Amazon looking for rides from captains who endanger their lives with his ridiculously haphazard behaviour and dubious stunts to augment the experience. Frank owes all his money to Nilo (Paul Giamatti, who I hope made enough on this to retire, or start his own theatre group, or whatever he’s pulling) and is on the verge of losing his boat to him. Now, we never actually find out why Frank is in debt: he seems to do a good business, and later on we find out things about that, well, make it all rather moot anyway. By all reports Jungle Cruise the movie fits in many of the familiar elements of the Jungle Cruise ride, which makes sense. Such elements include the skipper’s awful puns, which Collet-Serra insists on underlining in the visual equivalent of fluorescent ink by having the tourists cringe and groan to each one, down to one mouthing “Wow” in disbelief.

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Anyway, because Frank is in Nilo’s office trying to steal back the keys to his boat’s impounded engine when Lily comes calling, he plays along with her mistaken impression that he is Nilo in order to get hired by her. When he’s busted he still manages to impress Lily and MacGregor by facing down a jaguar that enters the tavern where they’re talking, only for the jaguar to turn out to be Frank’s pet: he arranged the whole thing, somehow. Lily is snatched by some kidnappers who lock her in a cage with some captive exotic birds, but she manages to break out, and she and Frank run around some in a chaotic action interlude. Prince Joachim turns up in a submarine that seems capable of navigating all the twists and shallows of the muddy river, and he madly fires off the sub’s machine guns and torpedos, mostly with the effect of tearing apart the town and eventually the sub crashes into Nilo’s boats – ha ha, he was a jerk, you see – whilst Frank, MacGregor, and Lily get away. Frank insists his boat is the fastest on the river, and at one point in trying to elude a torpedo fired by the U-boat it manages to move like a speedboat despite the fact that it never seems capable of more than slow chug, and Frank is first introduced trying to get the breakdown-prone machine working. The filmmakers seem to think it’s a worthy counterpart to the Millennium Falcon.

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I should note that all of the above scenes I’ve noted constitute the good part of Jungle Cruise, the portion of the film where its excess and inanity at least comes on with a few good gags and a sense that it’s trying oh so hard to deliver giddy fun. Once upstream, Lily demands the best bath in South America Frank promised her, so he points overboard and explains that the river is just that, a few moments before he incidentally demonstrates that there are flesh-stripping piranha in the water. Oh, and Lily, having donned a cliché explorer’s costume during her foray into the society, now insists on wearing trousers all the time, and Frank hilariously nicknames her “Pants.” Now, I can hear you all now begging the chance to say: but Mr Heath old chap, this movie’s supposed to be a jaunty, old-school adventure movie made to enthral kids and for adults to tolerate, it doesn’t need to make that much sense. And I agree – to a degree. But suspensions of disbelief and moments embracing puckish disinterest in logic ought to be like time-outs in American football or basketball, carefully rationed and used only to strategic effect. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) famously, mirthfully neglected explaining how Indiana Jones sails with the submarine to the island, but Jungle Cruise is apparently made by people who think you can make an entire movie on that level.

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Jungle Cruise is so aggressively senseless, so utterly detached from any semblance of narrative control and human content, that it becomes a parade of everything that’s bad and stupid and wrong about contemporary movies. It piles clichés upon clichés and then tries to shock them to Frankensteinian life by amplifying them to garish degrees of excess. We don’t just have banter, we have banter coming on in whiplash-inducing levels of rhythmic sound, like someone tried to film one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s orchestrations of Edith Sitwell’s nonsense poems. The film can’t just have MacGregor over-pack for the journey, no no! He has to come encumbered with huge trunks filled with ridiculous items, all of which Frank insists on throwing into the river rather than letting them be left behind in the hotel. This sort of gag might pass muster in a Bugs Bunny short, but here it’s stupefyingly witless and absurd. The film can’t merely make Lily a strong-willed woman but one utterly bulldozer-like in her life-endangering arrogance, pushing Frank to try braving some rapids that he knows are incredibly dangerous, and their voyage ends up with them almost going over a waterfall.

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Lily and Frank’s feudin’-and-a-fussin’ masking their attraction is pushed constantly to the point where I wanted piranha to eat them both. She and Frank can’t simply strike sparks as polarised characters stuck together like obvious models Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen (1951), but repetitively fall out in whirlwinds of hyperbolic reaction. Lily’s supposed to be a tough, brave person and yet she constantly acts like a reality TV princess, constantly performing her outrage to let the audience know she’s a strong woman, y’all. The inspiration here feels less The African Queen than Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in Stephen Sommers’ goofy, often clumsy, but enjoyable The Mummy films (1999, 2002), because those films, now about twenty years old, officially count as affectionate sort-of-classics for millennials and also just forgotten enough to justify recycling them for a young audience. But where those films’ protagonists at least were characterised with some care, and came with challenges in terms of their own sense of themselves to overcome, Johnson and Blunt are stuck playing mobile assemblages of necessary traits. Every single principle of good film crafting is subordinated here to the need for constant humour and visual stimulus-response.

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Once our insufferable, reprehensible heroes get on their way, Jungle Cruise sets about more thoroughly ransacking the established formula of the Pirates of the Caribbean films in trucking in folkloric and supernatural aspects. As we saw at the outset, Aguirre and some of his loyal men were not killed but cursed after massacring a native village and doomed never to stray far from the river, but they’ve become trapped in a grotto and infested by jungle plants and animals: one can throw out vines like tentacles, another has a bee’s nest in his skull, and Aguirre himself has snakes that writhe under his face and sometime burst out in a manner rather too reminiscent of Davy Jones’ tentacles in the second two Pirates of the Caribbean films. I grew to truly dislike the Pirates of the Caribbean films over the years as I meditated on their superficially energetic and yet perversely enervating take on the pulp adventure tradition. But they at least had pre-cancellation Johnny Depp’s blasé humour and against-the-grain showmanship to invest proceedings with the faintest hint of actual roguishness. Jungle Cruise, by contrast, is a relentless exercise more harmed than helped by its stars’ willingness to play their roles just as written.

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Only Plemons seems to be trying to work slightly off the beat with his part, playing the compulsory German baddie as bluffly good-humoured rather than icily menacing, and getting one of the few real laughs with his pronunciation of the world ‘jungle.’ Trouble is this means he’s never at all scary, and he’s the second annoyingly jovial German character in a big-budget movie this year, after Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, suggesting a new trope is emerging. Somehow Prince Joachim finds where Aguirre and his men are trapped – common knowledge, it seems – and revives them by sprinkling river water on them. Once freed, they agree to help the Prince whilst seeking the Tears of the Moon to cure themselves. The Prince seems quite unbothered by encountering 400-year-old undead conquistadors, to the point which makes you wonder how often it’s happened to him. The script for Jungle Cruise, by the by, is co-credited to Logan (2015) and Blade Runner 2046 (2017) co-writer Michael Green, who hitherto has displayed a remarkable capacity for making fantastical material feel bog-ordinary, and Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who often work as a directing team including on the likeable I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) and the passable Focus (2015). I can’t connect this movie with those beyond a certain habit of hyperactive writing.

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Eventually, when he and Frank share just about the film’s only coherent moment of downtime conversation, MacGregor strongly implies that he’s gay, and has followed his sister partly to avoid disgrace, and partly to honour her for defending him. In its own way this is actually one of the few solid moments of the film, allowing the two men to share understanding with an emotional tug, with Frank extending the calm solicitude of one outsider to another. But in context of the totality of the film, as well in terms of its aim, it’s a dreadful failure. MacGregor is constantly characterised throughout as the worst kind of nelly caricature, posh, unmanly, utterly lost in the jungle. We’re told that Lily spent her childhood moving around from exotic locale to locale learning all of her father’s business, an education apparently not extended to MacGregor. I couldn’t help but wonder if this scene was added after the rest of the film was shot to try and ride the ally wave. In any event it has the opposite effect, not just in making MacGregor, who might just otherwise be a comical dweeb, an offensive stereotype, but also as the Disney paymasters still can’t quite bring themselves to put their stamp on any explicit statement, so the film retains a fig-leaf of deniability so the I-don’t-want-that-stuff-shoved-down-my-kids’-throats-during-a-fun-movie crowd won’t get too hot and bothered.

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This is particularly indecent given the film’s incompetent stabs at bending over backwards to be politically correct. It tries to offer a period feminist message a la Wonder Woman (2017) but doesn’t actually, whilst actually managing to rip off something like Lasse Hallstrom’s Casanova (2005) in its method. All the dart-blowing, mask-wearing natives are in on Frank’s act, and the real bad guys are European imperialists. But I get ahead of myself. The natives knock out Lily and MacGregor with darts and put them through a terrifying routine where they’re threatened with torture and death, to the point where Lily starts fighting back only for the leader of the charade, Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón), to wearily pull off her mask and call time. They also knock out Frank, despite him being their confederate, because the movie needs to fool the audience to make the joke work, and despite the fact that given what we later learn about Frank it’s odd that a blow dart can render him unconscious when a sword through the heart doesn’t bother him much. But again I get ahead of myself. The notion of the unga-bunga natives suddenly turning out to be loquacious and hip (at one point Trader Sam admonishes someone to “be cool”) isn’t new, being a gag that goes back past F Troop and on to old Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road To… movies, and Jungle Cruise can’t even land it squarely.

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The film also has an odd, ineffectual approach to Aguirre and his men, who scarcely emerge from sideshow status despite nominally being the real antagonists, turning up now and then to give the heroes something to fight and run from. Aguirre is presented as both the arch conquistador scoundrel, who slayed the friendly Indians who saved his life, but also as a sympathetic figure driven by his need to find the Tears of the Moon and save his sickly daughter, in backstory that might have made sense but seems to have been edited with a garden mulcher. Also, the film insists on playing out the story of Aguirre and crew’s cursing twice, helping pad out a film that, whilst only just over two hours in running time, feels twice that long. Insert joke about Jungle Cruise helping to open up an Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) cinematic universe here. There’s also, weirdly enough, what could be called nods to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) as Prince Joachim sails upriver whilst blaring out Wagner, although I was more reminded of Herbert Lom’s similarly arrogant German villain in J. Lee Thompson’s King Solomon’s Mines (1985), a much-derided film I nonetheless found myself thinking back to fondly during this.

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Eventually it emerges that Frank is actually one of Aguirre’s cursed men, in a twist that’s been weakly suggested beforehand but really comes across like the screenwriters decided to toss it in once they reached this point of the script and then backtracked to make it vaguely sensible. Frank managed to avoid being trapped with his fellows and is the subject of Aguirre’s eternal hatred because Frank, real name Francisco, tried to stop the massacre, giving the tribal shaman time to foil and enchant them. So, Frank isn’t a down-on-his-luck everyman skipper after all, but an eternal Flying Dutchman’s captain, consumed by a sense of existential futility. As absurd as this twist is, it could have been effective and interesting, and demands a performer with a sense of haunted charisma and deeply inscrutable mystique. Instead we get Johnson, who’s always an affable screen presence and a decent comic actor, but also has all the haunted charisma and inscrutable mystique of a Burger King drive-thru attendant, mysteriously sporting an American accent despite being a Spanish-Algerian trapped for centuries in South America.

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Given how entertainment-starved we’ve been over the past eighteen months, it feels like just about any big movie release ought to be worth celebrating. And Jungle Cruise is no slapdash quickie. It’s one of the most expensive films ever made, and it looks it: there are truly brilliant sets and special effects littered throughout, to the degree the film ever slows down to enjoy them. But Jungle Cruise is a timely reminder of just how bad modern Hollywood can be at what it’s supposed to be the best in the world at doing, labouring to do the sort of thing just about any backlot salary director could have tossed off in a hour back in the 1930s. What’s especially galling as the genuinely fun and interesting film this could been is constantly in evidence. Collet-Serra has been one of the more talented genre film hands to emerge in the past few years, delivering strong, no-nonsense but artfully constructed thrillers often starring Liam Neeson. And the best thing that can be said about Jungle Cruise is as frenetic as things get it never quite dissolves into total incoherence on a visual level, and sports some of Collet-Serra’s eye for colour composition. But on Jungle Cruise he seems to have been swallowed up and infested, much like Aguirre and his men, with the pulverising blandness and incoherence of Disney’s corporate prerogatives. It’s not in any authentic manner a Collet-Serra film, but an accumulation of executive notes, Twitter feed ploys, and special effects team make-work taped together and called a movie.

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Part of what’s really, gruellingly painful about Jungle Cruise is how unexciting it is, and how unfunny after its first couple of reels, as the story with its magical MacGuffin begins to congeal into the limpest brand of current digi-cinema. Movie thrills demand that at least on some level the audience be given the feeling that one some level what we’re seeing on screen is dangerous, that it involves some slight blurring of the line between fiction and life, something that used to manifest through the beauties of stunt work. Of the few attempts to deliver any proper derring-do in Jungle Cruise, there’s a scene where Frank tries to swing with Lily on a cable from one side of the native village to the other, only to slip and swing back again. Not a bad idea for a comically deflated swashbuckler move, but Collet-Serra doesn’t offer any consequence to the failure to pull off the move – it doesn’t matter that they don’t make it, so the whole vignette just dies a quiet death. Eventually Lily and Frank forge ahead without MacGregor, who they leave behind when he injures his foot. The film contrives to get MacGregor back into the film by having him get snatched by Prince Joachim. In the end he mans up enough to suddenly throw a few good punches at the Prince, knocking him prone and inadvertently cause his death. Which somehow only manages to increase the embarrassing patronisation of the anointed gay character, in a movie set at a time when T.E. Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon were jousting with empires.

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Finally, Lily and Frank track their goal to a remote waterfall basin called La Luna Rota, and manage to brave an underwater mechanism that closes a lock to block the waterfall and drain off the water, so the basin drains out and reveals some ancient Mayan ruins containing the Tears of the Moon tree, which I shall henceforth call the wondrous Avatar tree. Before diving in the water Lily makes Frank turn away whilst she strips down to her long underwear, although a couple of seconds later they’re both swimming together en deshabille: we just needed to sneak in that little bit more banter and violate what little we know about these people. At least the scene where Lily gets trapped whilst trying to close the lock whilst Frank is attacked by piranha was actually filmed underwater and so there’s a tiny flicker of suspense. The wondrous Avatar tree is an enormous thing that flowers when moonlight touches it, and we get one of those climaxes where the characters have to rush to pluck some of the petals before the moon moves on despite the fact they could reasonably wait until the following night. In a climax the film seems to think is rather apt but is actually grotesquely horrible, Frank eventually elects to entrap himself with the other Conquistadors, returned to their petrified fate by cutting off the water flow into the cavern: Aguirre manages to shout, “This is worse than torture!”, and he’s entirely right. Fortunately Lily uses the one petal she managed to pluck to save Frank, but apparently leaving the other men to suffer there for all eternity.

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What nice heroes. I mean, yes, Aguirre and his crew did terrible things once. And that given, isn’t 400 years of being the living dead punishment enough? There’s some kind of unpleasant pseudo-morality at work here I found disturbing. Some of the petals bloom anew and the heroes return to civilisation with the prize in hand. Lily again has MacGregor lecture the society, only this time to inform them she’s been made a Cambridge professor on the back of discovering the flower and he tells the society all to stick it, because apparently Cambridge is good and has no connection at all to whatever society this is and there will be no professional consequences to such an act whatsoever. Now of course this kind of movie always has a bit of fun with historical licence, but where Raiders of the Lost Ark handled the hero’s success in bringing back an impossible relic to an inimical world with economy and a beautiful kick, Jungle Cruise begs the question of just exactly what will be made of Lily’s world-changing discovery of a magic curative plant. Despite having a narrative about discovery and recovery, nobody learns anything in the course of the movie. Jungle Cruise is a fascinating, perhaps even ultimate example of what happens to movies when they’re made by people with no apparent connection to anything even vaguely like the real world, but simply take the phenomenon of mixing together other movies and acts of corporate branding, ultimately debasing the adventure movie tradition.

Standard
2000s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, New Zealand cinema

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) / The Two Towers (2002) / The Return of the King (2003)

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Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair (The Two Towers only), Fran Walsh

By Roderick Heath

For over forty years, John Ronald Ruel Tolkien’s three-volume fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings defied all efforts to adapt it as live-action cinema. The requirements of such an adaptation, including a large budget, advanced special effects, and an intelligent filmmaker with a feel for the fantasy genre, put it beyond the scope and interest of movie studios, although a fascinating array of directorial talents, particularly John Boorman, confirmed a desire to try. Stanley Kubrick, an admirer of the novels, turned down an offer to film them because he thought it impossible at the time. There was even an aborted attempt to make a version starring The Beatles. Tolkien, a philologist, Oxford don, and First World War veteran, spent most of his adult life creating his beloved and endlessly influential legendarium, drawing on the classical and medieval myths that were the marrow of his intellectual interests along with the languages they were told in. Tolkien’s stated aim was to synthesise a specifically British equivalent to the tales of Homer and the Norse sagas as he felt the cultural core of the ancient land had been erased by the Romans and subsequent invaders.

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Tolkien’s earliest forays on this project were scribbled out when he was serving in the trenches during World War I, at first for private amusement and then with increasing purpose that crystallised when he wrote a short novel for young readers, 1937’s The Hobbit, rooting it in his invented world. That book’s success spurred him to start work on The Lord of the Rings, which took nearly twenty years. An immediate hit as the three volumes were published, the work only grew in popularity, particularly as its themes and imagery concurred with the emerging counterculture in the 1960s. Tolkien gave new and powerful life to the fantasy genre, which had its roots in the backwards-looking wistfulness of late Victoriana and branched off into the arcane macho fantasias of pulp magazines. Tolkien was dismayed by the first BBC radio adaptation in the mid-1950s, a version that no longer exists: it took time for the lexicon of high fantasy which Tolkien had all but birthed to permeate pop culture enough to be used to retranslate his imaginings into other forms. Maverick animation director Ralph Bakshi bypassed many of the difficulties by making an animated version, but the result, released in 1978, told only half the story of the novel and its indifferent reception meant the project was left unfinished. The BBC’s second radio adaptation, broadcast in 1981, was on the other hand richly detailed and much admired.

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The man who finally talked a studio into backing a multi-episode adaptation produced on the most lavish of scales was as unlikely in his way as Tolkien’s diminutive, world-defying heroes. Peter Jackson had made his name in low-budget, freakish punk-gore comedy-horror films in his native New Zealand, beginning with 1987’s incredibly cheap and patchy but ingenious Bad Taste and pushed to an extreme with 1992’s Brain Dead (aka Dead Alive), strongly influenced by fellow no-budget provocateur Sam Raimi but with new, baroque dimensions and a gift for blockbuster-like narrative intensity and spectacle. Heavenly Creatures (1994) marked Jackson’s sudden swivel towards international respectability in tackling a notorious and deeply tragic true crime tale, whilst still drawing on a fabulously fecund and bizarre imagination, as well as the new realm of digital special effects through the burgeoning Weta Workshop, to illustrate the hothouse bond of two young women who committed a murder in 1950s Christchurch.

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Jackson’s first film made for Hollywood, if still shot in his homeland, was The Frighteners (1997), a return to his earlier gore-comedy fare, only slightly toned down for a wider audience. It proved a flop, but Jackson, undaunted, gained the approval of rights holder Saul Zaentz and got Miramax and New Line Films to fund his grandiose Tolkien venture. Some of Jackson’s value for money would still have been obvious. He was a hot young property despite a commercial stumble, he proposed making the films back to back in New Zealand to save costs and exploit its variety of locations, and knew how to ride the cutting edge of digital special effects. The novel’s popularity also promised a ready-made audience. To a certain extent. The Lord of the Rings had to win over the ordinary moviegoer as well, something fantasy film had long had a hard time doing, without a major hit in the genre since John Milius’ take on its gamier, pulpier wing, Conan the Barbarian (1982). But 2001 was an auspicious year, also seeing the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and for a while at least pure fantasy became a popular movie genre. Jackson, his partner and collaborator Fran Walsh, and writer and fellow arch Tolkien fan Philippa Boyens, approached their adaptation with wise scruples.

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The challenge, and the films’ subsequent success, can be summarised with one key word: balance. Jackson and company had to even the scales between the many frames of reference that had become part of the mystique of The Lord of the Rings as well as the intricacies of its writing and story. Jackson avoided either becoming mired too deeply in the esoteric aspect of Tolkien’s tales or trying to revise them into something more contemporary, finding more room for creativity in extrapolating and amplifying the action aspect of Tolkien. The books had become signal works for fans in their preoccupation with a fictional world where everything has multiple dimensions of history, language, and symbolic portent, and the protective concept of nature as an interconnected system matched to a hostility towards industrialism. This also lurked behind the material’s popular perception as something beloved by asocial nerds and patchouli-soaked collegians, an association Jackson played up with unobtrusive mirth in making the Hobbits’ tobacco-like “leaf” rather more suggestively pot-like. In any events, the three films’ success made them an immediate pop cultural standard, the third instalment netting the Best Picture Oscar for 2003 and the trilogy more or less defining for the last generation or so what people think of as epic cinema. The Lord of the Rings incidentally created instant visual clichés of the new digital effects era, like the opening shots of CGI armies marching across the screen.

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The Fellowship of the Ring, the first instalment, grabs attention nimbly from its opening moments, utilising Cate Blanchett’s sinuous narration in playing the lovely, ageless Elf lady Galadriel, to narrate and with Howard Shore’s tingling, elegant, gently foreboding string scoring lacing around the images like the curlicues of medieval penmanship. The quasi-mythic background of the ensuing drama is sketched in a few brief, spectacular scenes, as the Dark Lord Sauron, a fallen angel-like being who served the Legendarium’s great Satanic figure Melkor until his defeat, and then tried to gain control of the world called Middle-earth by sharing out magical rings of influence to the lords of Men, Elves, and Dwarves, all bound secretly to his own ring which can subjugate others to his will. The kings of Men given the rings became the Nazgûl, undead, completely enslaved beings, but the various races of Middle-earth formed an alliance to take on Sauron and his army of brutish beings called Orcs in their hellish wasteland home of Mordor. In the final battle Sauron seemed completely unstoppable thanks to the ring, until the human king Isildur (Harry Sinclair) managed to slice off Sauron’s fingers along with the ring. Sauron’s physical form exploded and the armies of darkness were pushed back, but Isildur, ignoring the pleas of the Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) to throw the ring into the volcanic pits of Mount Doom where it was forged, decided to keep it. But the ring, an object inculcated with the pure malice and treacherous wit of Sauron as well as his life-essence, contrived eventually to bring about Isildur’s death and be lost, eventually claimed by Sméagol (Andy Serkis), a being so susceptible to the ring’s consuming power he is taken over by a rival personality calling itself Gollum, and becomes its perfect protector in the long wait for Sauron’s power to re-emerge.

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The theme of the cursed ring, based on several mythic objects including Andvaranaut from the Völsunga Saga which also supplied Wagner with the chief basis for his version of the Nibelung legend, is used in Tolkien’s story rather differently to its source, where it was an object hazily symbolising greed, misused authority, and grave legacy. Tolkien reforged it into a catch-all symbol of demonic corruption, working insidiously on every psyche it encounters. The abstract power of the ring was one of the more difficult ideas to communicate cinematically, with Jackson pulling every trick in the book to give it a menacing gravitas, from shots using forced perspective lensing to capture its mysterious and subordinating charisma, to menacing, simmering voices heard on the soundtrack when its power is stirred, as well as dramatically stylised visions when people don the ring and behold the shadowy world of spiritual energy usually cloaked to mortal eyes. The ring eventually came into the possession of a Hobbit – a race of very short and stocky people who like to live prosaic lives on the fringe of the great world of Middle-earth – named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who found it during an encounter with Gollum. But the story only truly starts when the ring is passed on to his nephew and ward Frodo (Elijah Wood), a gambolling innocent who proves, thanks in part to his native Hobbit qualities and his own character, the only being capable of resisting the ring’s influence long enough to stand a chance of taking it back to Mount Doom and destroying it.

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Sauron, still only a spiritual entity after losing his body, has nonetheless regained enough power and dread purpose to manifest as a cloud of fire shaped like an eye atop his grim fortress in Mordor, and it’s time for him to send out his minions in search of the ring and unleash his new project to enslave the world. The ring’s true nature is recognised by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) after Bilbo bequeaths it as well as his underground house Bag End to Frodo on his 111th birthday. Once certain of its identity he urges Bilbo to carry it out of The Shire to Elrond’s home at the Elf city of Rivendell. Gandalf pressgangs Frodo’s friend and gardener Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) into accompanying him after catching him eavesdropping on their conversation. Frodo gains more company when they run into his relatives, the perpetually hungry gadabouts Peregrin ‘Pippin’ Took (Dominic Monaghan) and Meriadoc ‘Merry’ Brandybuck (Billy Boyd), on the road. Eventually the foursome are taken under the wing of a friend of Gandalf’s, an enigmatic warrior commonly called Strider but actually named Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who tries to lead them safely through the increasingly rugged and dangerous country east of The Shire. Meanwhile Gandalf, planning to rendezvous with the Hobbits, visits the most powerful and respected of Middle-earth’s small clique of wizards, Saruman (Christopher Lee), at his tower in Isengard, to warn him of the portents of Sauron’s return, only to find Saruman has already cast his lot with the Dark Lord, and Saruman uses his superior power to imprison Gandalf.

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The central metaphor of Tolkien’s story, that the little people – the figurative made literal here, in a touch at once faintly ribbing but also self-mythologising in its attitude to Englishness as a pure-sprung virtue – are the most truly heroic, was never meant to be subtle, and it’s a deep-wound part of the story’s universal appeal. The Lord of the Rings plays with the usual substance of warrior culture hero myths to place the usually unheroic at the heart of the tale whilst the emissaries of martial vainglory are more often than not held in suspicion until they prove worthy. Crucially, Jackson purveyed the twee existence of the Hobbits, with their idyllic version of a rural English lifestyle, and the mock-classical speech and concepts with dashes of good-humour but without any concessions to modern incredulity. Jackson himself swore off inserting any message of his own in tackling Tolkien, but there is, in the first film’s quick portrait of The Shire and its denizens, dashes of the satirical eye Jackson turned so scathingly on the New Zealand bourgeoisie in his earlier films, in the glowering Hobbits who dislike any sign of disruption or peculiarity. For Tolkien the road out from The Shire was a fraught and half-dread one for a man who knew what marching off to and home from danger felt like; for Jackson, there’s the squirming provincial creative person’s suspicion the risky path is the only way out. Jackson’s directing approach is quickly in evidence in the thrusting camerawork and wide-angle lensing to give the actions and objects a looming, overlarge force, giving the expensive blockbuster much the same visual energy as Jackson’s marauding B-movies.

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The sequence of Gandalf’s return to Frodo’s home after confirming what the ring is an excellent thumbnail of Jackson’s technique. After creating the sense of looming and imminent danger with a vignette of one of the mounted Nazgûl questioning a hapless Shire farmer, Jackson depicts Frodo coming home after a night drinking with his friends. A lurking presence is suggested via hand-held camerawork peering through a grill. A long shot of Frodo entering the house dollies slightly to note papers flitting about in the breeze and then then forced-open window it blows through. Frodo pads into the darkened house, the camera moving hungrily from behind Frodo to before him: a hand reaches out of the shadow behind him, grasping his shoulder, with Gandalf suddenly looming out of the dark, his face lunging forward and the camera moving to meet him so his dishevelled, wild-eyed visage entirely fills the screen, before his totemic question – “Is it secret? Is it safe?” The actual revelation of the ring, performed by throwing it in fire so that the ancient words written on its surface are revealed, and Gandalf’s grim news about how the Nazgûl know it’s now in the hands of a Baggins, is then followed by a swift cut to one of the searching Nazgûl beheading a challenging watchman somewhere out in the Shire night, a jagged illustration of nightmarish danger moving inexorably closer: cut back to Frodo’s panicked reaction and his plea for Gandalf to take the ring.

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The visual and storytelling cues here are all straight from horror cinema, nodding to Dario Argento and John Carpenter’s use of negative screen space as the place where threat lurks as well as Raimi’s hypermobile camerawork. Expectation is raised only for what is suggested to be a lurking danger to prove a friend, but the danger is real and now feels omnipresent. Such a trick Jackson plies arguably once or twice too often but certainly as a consistent tactic to keep the narrative in agitation, playing games throughout with his style of set-up and follow-through, in contrast to traditional approaches of screen epics and fantasy. The style informs the sudden transformation of The Shire from a place of hermetic stability into one charged with threat, but doing so in a manner that emphasises the building menace as intimate: the colossal, world-reshaping supernatural force lying out in the vast wilds in the east manifests locally to Frodo through troubling portents and roaming assassins. The actual trek for Frodo and Sam is momentarily halted when Sam notes they’ve reached what was previously the furthest point he’d ever travelled from The Shire’s centre, the moment of leaving behind home and known things and venturing into the world identified as something crucial in the course of the quest and the heroes’ concepts of themselves. Soon they’re eluding the Nazgûl on the road, Frodo resisting the urge to put on the ring as they come close, and racing to beat them to the only ferry across the bordering river.

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A heavy dose of jolly comic relief counterpoints the high drama, largely provided by Merry and Pippin, whose minds initially, scarcely rise above their stomachs and thirsts until they’re immersed in the great conflict, and even once they join battle they still know how to take time out for a puff of weed and a spot of carousing. The Hobbits hover on the border of the childlike in their personas and wide-eyed approach to life, an aspect Jackson emphasised by casting youngish actors in the roles in contrast to other envisionings that often made them lumpen. They’re also in their provincialism ideal tourists in this world to discover everything for the first time, insular in the best sense in representing homey values almost undiluted, and good for speaking exposition to. As innocents abroad they need a protector and find one in Aragorn, introduced as a shadowy, knowing figure who embodies the promise of classical heroism but disdains the trappings of it, for very good reasons. Aragorn saves the Hobbits from an assault by the Nazgûl, but Frodo is stabbed with a cursed blade, beginning his slow transformation into another wraith. Luckily, the Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), Aragorn’s lady love and Elrond’s daughter, intercepts them on the road and makes a gallop on horseback with Frodo to the safe harbour and healing arts at Rivendell.

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Once Frodo recovers, and Gandalf joins them after escaping Saruman, they call a meeting of envoys from the various Middle-earth races, including the Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and the human knight Boromir (Sean Bean), who represents his father Denethor (John Noble), steward of the Italianate human realm of Gondor. These three join Gandalf, Aragorn, and the four Hobbits in a Fellowship that sets out for Mordor. During an attempt to make passage through the Mines of Moria, a subterranean former Dwarf city now abandoned to Orcs and an enormous fire demon called a Balrog, Gandalf seems to die fending off the Balrog. The rest of the Fellowship find refuge briefly with another Elven commune ruled over by Galadriel, with her great arts as a seer and sorceress. After boating downriver, Frodo, with Sam in tow, is obliged to split from the Fellowship when Boromir, unbalanced by the ring’s influence, tries to snatch it, and they trek off alone. The others in the Fellowship are attacked by a new breed of Orcs reared by Saruman called Uruk-hai: they kidnap Merry and Pippin, think them to be the Hobbits carrying the ring, and kill Boromir. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas set out to save the two captives, ending the first film. In The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam continue their arduous trek and form an uneasy partnership with Gollum, who’s been tracking them across country. Stricken by the pathos of Gollum’s state and feeling discomforting kinship with him, Frodo agrees to let him guide them to Mordor. They’re briefly held captive by Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham), but eventually he is convinced of the necessity of letting them go.

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Whilst Frodo is the linchpin of the narrative, he is bound through his general if tested decency and enforced passivity to be the least compelling figure, worn down to a husk by the weight of the burden and the effect of the ring: the challenge of his character is not his growth but his need to remain the same, to retain his essential goodness and optimism. The former child star Wood’s innate likeability and large blue eyes go a long way, but it is nonetheless not an easy part to play, as Frodo’s deterioration and increasing attitude of grim knowledge, in both his sense of impending personal doom and his battle with the ring, demands careful shading. Meanwhile Sam, his most stalwart companion, grows ever more valiant as the quest unfolds, until the dramatic crescendo when Sam, unable to carry the ring himself, decides instead to carry the exhausted Frodo on his back. By contrast, the humans are more fretful, complex creatures most vulnerable to the ring’s predations because their best motives are often close kin to their worst, the temptation to try and wield its power to protect their communities the most devious potent of its manipulations, the one that ruins Boromir.

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But the most heroic human characters like Aragorn, Faramir, Théoden (Bernard Hill), and Éowyn (Miranda Otto), are defined as such in overcoming their sense of inner frailty and unsureness in their identities, a process of becoming that makes the humans, by the tale’s end, the inheritors of a world where the fixed and unchanging races are moving on to “undying lands,” fading in their power and relevance. Aragorn is very much the central figure in this, a man who steadily resolves from a shadowy outsider by choice to a nascent warrior-king as it emerges he is the descendent of Isildur, the line of kings having abandoned the throne of Gondor, but still retains a quiet fear he will ultimately prove as weak as his ancestor, a fear he must eventually quell when he faces situations requiring exactly his gifts. With Mortensen expertly depicting steely fighting pith balanced by a rather gentle, philosophical spirit, Aragorn represents the complex balance of forces required in being a civilised and civilising man, whilst possessing all the ancient virtues, the ideal fighter and eventual king because of, rather than in spite of, his complexity. He’s also the only true romantic figure in the film, once who suffers as well as feels anointed through his apparently impossible love for Arwen.

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Gandalf, based broadly on versions of Odin in his wanderer guise in Norse tales, is the chief engine of the storyline as the being who urges the others into the quest and who knows a deeper lore about the world, from his introduction where he seems little more than a gentle entertainer and old smoking pal of Bilbo’s, through to his rebirth as a white-robed, priestly figure who barely remembers his old identity and represents a divine promise throughout the fearful onslaught. McKellen was cast with surprising astuteness (considering he had revived his movie star fortunes playing the relished villainy of Richard III, 1995) as the inscrutable but paternal wizard, a figure who much like the other characters must pass through his own trial forcing him to evolve into something else, but in his case treads somewhat closer to an outright act of transcendence. McKellen provides the three films with their backbone of gravitas and authority infused with a gruffly avuncular streak and a dash of plummy humour. Gandalf’s travails as a large man in Bilbo’s burrow as built for small people provides more than a dash of slapstick, as it helps underline his position as the figure providing a vivid connection between a world like our own and the larger fantastical zone.

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There’s a fascinating, likely coincidental similarity between Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog and the scene in Michael Mann’s The Keep (1984) where McKellen’s character Cuza stands up to the demonic entity Molasar. Both scenes involve McKellen’s aged, wizened, but uncorrupted character standing up to a monstrous avatar, wielding a totemic object – in Gandalf’s case his staff, in Cuza’s the cruciform talisman that keeps Molasar imprisoned – and rising to a titanic pitch of resistance in facing down all the evil in the world personified. Both scenes require McKellen’s capacity to turn his voice from something soft and reassuring to a booming, powerful device. Gollum, a creation that broke ground in the mostly seamless fusion of digital effects and Serkis’ brilliant performing, is by contrast one of the great screen grotesques, representing debased spirit. Gollum alternates shrieking, cringing pathos and crafty malevolence depending on which personality is in charge, delighting in his diet of raw insects and animal flesh, singing ditties to himself when happy, and speaking in mangled syntax often delivered in a sibilant purr. Serkis surely built upon Peter Woodthorpe’s characterisation from the 1981 radio version but added his own, most insistent quality in emphasising Gollum’s own, aggressively perverse childlike streak, often acting like a playground tyke, sometimes taking delight in petty cruelties and his peculiar appetites, other times viciously jealous of Frodo. Gollum counterbalances the Hobbits with a different brand of essentialised human nature, driven back into a kind of prelapsarian innocence except one that’s cruel and driven by a singular elemental need that has displaced and combined all the others.

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Gollum winnows the vast world and grand military, political, and spiritual crises down to one fixated urge, plotting to regain the ring and revenge himself on the “filthy, tricksy Bagginses,” with Sam warning Frodo all the way and Frodo daring to take the chance because he knows the way but also because of Gandalf’s prediction that Gollum’s role in the drama might still be crucial, and indicative of Frodo’s own fate. Sméagol briefly resurges thanks to Frodo’s kindness, but when Frodo is obliged to betray him to Faramir’s men to save his life, Gollum returns more dominant than ever. Serkis’ genius in the role helped it do something that the Star Wars prequels failed notably to do with Jar-Jar Binks, in making a CGI character substantial and dramatically dominating. Jackson starts The Return of the King with a prologue flashback to Sméagol and his friend Déagol (Thomas Robins) first discovering the ring: the bauble’s immediate, deadly effect on Sméagol drives him to strangle Déagol and claim it. This scene turns the movie immediately towards a film noir-like underpinning in noting that obsessive jealousy and greed motivate one of its most crucial elements. It also lets Serkis appear on screen as the character.

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Whilst Jackson and his co-writers reshuffled some events and employed a cross-cutting structure more reminiscent of the Star Wars films than Tolkien’s segmented narrative, and stealing some of the fire of those films with their heavy debt to Tolkien back, the three films correspond generally to the three volumes of the novel. The Fellowship of the Ring offers a pure, picaresque quest structure after its carefully laid story gambits. Jackson’s translation of Tolkien’s concept of an Anglocentric folklore presents its mythical, distorted prehistoric Europe as a place of untold ancient wonders and malignancies, monsters and spirits permeating taboo places, Elves lurking in woods and hills trying to maintain natural balance, and the industry of the Dwarves with their works remaining long after their builders have been wiped out by dark monstrosities. The beautifully blasted visions of arcane ruins, deserted chthonic cities, swamps littered with preserved corpses from long-ago battles, and volcanic wastelands, are always counterpointed with scenes of fecundity and splendour, particularly the Elven realms. Rivendell, pitched somewhere between storybook illustration and Chinese scroll painting in visions of jagged gables and hewn-wood decoration hovering weightlessly amidst soaring mountains, foaming waterfalls and delicate footbridges and shafts of soft light tickling gleaming bowers in the gloaming. The demesne of Galadriel with homes woven around and dug within the trunks of colossal trees. All filmed with unstinting excellence by the late Andrew Lesnie.

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Another consequential choice Jackson and company made was to minimise the impact of the background lore on how the plot onscreen plays out. The film still retains constant hints of this extra dimension in the dialogue, so the random references to Melkor or Helm Hammerhand or Númenór mean something to people immersed in the books, but don’t trip up entirely fresh viewers. Such streamlining is one of the trickiest of arts in adaptation for this sort of thing and one the filmmakers did exceptionally well from one point of view, compared to, say, David Lynch’s zealously detailed yet corkscrewed approach to Dune (1984). Despite the general determination to stay true to the defiantly anti-modern lilt of the source material, they also sheared away some portions of the story, most particularly the puckish sprite Tom Bombadil, most likely to turn off a contemporary mass audience. The arguable unfortunate collateral cost of this is subtle: for Tolkien, the lore, the world that surrounds his characters and provides them with their legends and histories and reasons why things stand as they do in Middle-earth, was as much the point as the immediate melodrama, if not moreso. By stripping away Tolkien’s songs and parables and hushed little reveries on the meaning of things the heroes witness, a crucial part of his work essence is minimised. It also, to a degree, makes Tolkien’s world over in the image of some of its lesser imitators in the world of fantasy, where things simply are what they are in obedience to general generic dictum: Sauron is the Dark Lord, and that’s that.

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And yet Jackson, as a director in full command of his medium, is able to communicate much of this flavour through his imagery. Sights like the grand statues of the ancient Gondor kings called the Argonauth looming from cliffs in the midst of wilderness, or the decapitated head of a statue and other ruins littering the landscape, convey the impressions of this vast and layered history as well as a dozen pages of written lore, a world pitted with the scars of primeval wars between demons and archangels and the refuse of civilisations risen and fallen. This connects with Tolkien’s obsessive refrain of damage and regeneration, sickening and healing, permeating both the storyline’s preoccupation and its visual realisation, inculcated in very human incidents like Frodo’s poisoning and revival and Théoden’s recovery from his withered, enslaved state, through to entire socio-political structures, in Aragorn’s coming presaging the recovery of Gondor. Just a little too often, Jackson uses bright glowing light to signal the presence of the ethereal, although it’s certainly in keeping with Tolkien’s imagery chains and Manichaean conceptualism. The trilogy also constantly sees Frodo swooning and falling when he feels the ring’s influence for little good reason except to amp up the drama, to the point where you wonder if he actually has an inner ear infection.

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The Two Towers sees Merry and Pippin escape from their Orc captors when the raiding party is attacked by horsemen from Gondor’s neighbouring human kingdom, Rohan. After encountering Gandalf, reborn as a higher order of wizard through defeating the Balrog in battle, the two Hobbits are taken in hand by Treebeard (voiced by Rhys Davies), a member of a species called Ents who look like walking, talking trees and consider themselves shepherds and protectors of the forests. Merry and Pippin set about trying to convince the lethargic but hulking Ents to attack Saruman’s stronghold. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas also meet up with Gandalf, who leads them on a visit to the king of Rohan, Théoden, knowing that human realm lies in the path of Saruman’s legions. They find Théoden has become decrepit and wizened, as Théoden’s minister, the magnificently named Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), a minion of Saruman, has helped the evil wizard control Théoden as a puppet. Gandalf proves now powerful enough to break Saruman’s hold over Théoden and he returns to his normal state, whilst Gríma is exiled. With an army of Uruk-hai marching their way and many of his best fighters exiled by Gríma including his heir apparent Éomer (Karl Urban), Théoden decides to hole up with his populace in a fortress called Helm’s Deep, where they’re reinforced by Elf warriors come to honour their old alliance, but thanks to Gríma’s advice Saruman mixes up an explosive device to shatter its defensive wall. The defenders prevail thanks to the last-minute arrival of Gandalf with Éomer and a force of Rohan’s mounted riders, the Rohirrim, whilst the Ents, stirred to wrath by Saruman’s predations on their forest, assault Isengard and lay waste to the wizard’s doings.

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In The Return of the King, the Rohirrim move to help Gondor’s capital Minas Tirith which comes under siege by Orcs out of Mordor led by the strongest and most evil of the Nazgûl, the Witch-King of Angmar. Gandalf’s efforts to stir the city to defence are treated disdainfully by Denethor, who mourns Boromir’s death and has heard about Aragorn. Pippin volunteers as a warrior of Gondor to pay the debt he feels he owes as Boromir died saving him. Consumed by a need to enact the world-ending sorrow he feels as a literal cataclysm, Denethor sends Faramir out to die in a suicidal assault on the advancing Orcs, and then arranges a funeral pyre for them both despite Faramir, as Pippin notices, not being dead. Meanwhile Sam and Frodo are led into a trap by Gollum, who promises to show them a pass over high, jagged mountains in Mordor, neglecting to mention it’s inhabited by the huge, carnivorous spider-demon Shelob, as Gollum hopes Shelob will eat the two Hobbits so he can claim the ring out her spoor. Realising the Rohirrim aren’t strong enough to defeat the Orc army, Aragorn, with Gimli and Legolas in tow, heads into a haunted cave inhabited by the men who broke their oaths to Isildur to fight for him only to be cursed and linger in an undead and abhorred spectral state. Wielding Isildur’s reforged sword, gifted to him by Elrond as a totem of hope, whilst also testing the strength of the legitimacy of his claim on the throne, Aragorn obliges the dead men to follow him to help lift the siege of Minas Tirith.

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Middle episodes of movie trilogies often represent a special challenge, and The Two Towers struggles with a disjointed narrative line including Gandalf’s deus ex machina return, a relative lack of real drama for the two pairs of Hobbits to play out, and the introduction of many characters of consequence to the rest of the tale, particularly Théoden, Faramir, and Théoden’s niece and ward Éowyn, who yearns to fight and falls for Aragorn. Jackson’s desire to hit the ground running is made a little too literal as he opens with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas jogging endlessly in their pursuit of Uruk-hai with Merry and Pippin: where Conan the Barbarian made its montage of its heroes dashing across the steppes lyrical and ebullient, here it feels oddly laborious and overextended, like fantasy workout video, despite Gimli’s comical complaining. The little dramas playing out in Théoden’s realm have to be quickly sketched. The structure, unlike the open-road narrative of the previous movie, demands more attention to the slow build of suspense before the final battle, with relatively little action in between. Nonetheless, The Two Towers eventually turns most of these potential problems into unusual strengths, allowing for Jackson’s most poetic visual flourishes and character touches, like Theodon holding a flower whilst standing before his dead son’s grave, and Gríma making a romantic overture to Éowyn so surprisingly lush in its longing that it momentarily arrests Éowyn’s justified loathing of him.

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Particularly effective in this manner is the mid-film sequence where Elrond, trying to convince Arwen not to remain in Middle-earth pining for the mortal Aragorn, paints a picture of future grief as the unchanging Elf weeps over Aragorn’s sarcophagus under billowing wintry leaves, one of the many images in Jackson’s repertoire that seem stolen from some pre-Raphaelite painter. Jackson’s approach had plenty of cinematic forebears too. The feel for grandeur both natural and architectural and the basic lexicon of this kind of screen fantasy can be traced back to Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), and some of Jackson’s shots might as well have been clipped out of it. There’s also the strong imprint of Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur (1981) with its careful visual contrast between sleek and brilliant, fashioned textures of armour and gleaming pseudo-classical buildings and the crude earth and fecund nature, but Jackson can’t quite reproduce the directness of Boorman’s gleaned concept of the human social order and natural flourishing as entwined. There are flashes of Conan the Barbarian and Krull (1983), along with King Kong (1933) and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion fantasy films: Kong shaking the log informs Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog whilst the heroes sailing past the feet of the Argonauth nods to the equally dwarfed heroes of Jason and the Argonauts (1963). There are some tips of the hat to Hong Kong wu xia cinema in the gravity-defying athleticism and deftness of Legolas as well as the balletic camerawork, harking back to Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1980) and Tony Siu-Tung Ching’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), an influence that would grow more pronounced in the prequel The Hobbit series.

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The battle scenes draw on suitable models ranging from Alexander Nevsky (1938) to Seven Samurai (1954), Spartacus (1960), Zulu (1964), and Waterloo (1970) with their sense of how to handle large masses locked in deadly, diagrammatic symmetry, delivering moments of raw cinematic spectacle like the defenders of Helm’s Deep beholding the awesome host of their enemies in flashes of lightning, before Kurosawan rain begins to fall upon the assembled armies. The war movie influence becomes stronger in the second and third episodes of the trilogy as the narrative switches from quest to combat. Jackson’s most vigorous innovation on his influences lies in his attempt to make the films studies in near-constant motion both narratively and stylistically. He exploits the digital effects to present an unfettered use of the camera, whilst still trying to retain a sense of contiguous gracefulness, creating something distinct from the increasingly hyperactive approach of some Hollywood directors in the 1990s whilst still declaratively modern. One great example comes when Saruman stands atop his tower using incantations to foil the Fellowship’s progress, the camera sweeping down with a bird’s-eye-view, conveying all the wild drama and shamanic natural communion inherent in the scene. Another, more traditional piece of camera dynamism comes in the climax of The Fellowship of the Ring with a long tracking shot that starts on ground level and soars to high overhead, following Uruk-hai as Boromir blowing the Horn of Gondor brings them running to that fight.

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The combination of CGI and model work is used to deliver breathless spectacle, like the flying explorations of Saruman’s underground works where Orcs labour constantly, before going in closer for memorable visions of the Uruk-hai being born out mud. Certain sequences in the trilogy have the kind of breathless, super-cinematic power once reserved in reference for the likes of the parting of the Red Sea from The Ten Commandments (1956) or Kong on the Empire State Building or the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and they’re liberally scattered through all three instalments – the chase through Moria and Gandalf’s stand-off against the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring and the return to at the very start of The Two Towers as he and the beast plunge into the bowls of the earth; the ride of the Rohirrim climaxing The Two Towers; just about the whole battle for Minas Tirith in The Return of the King including Éowyn standing against the Witch King and Legolas clambering up the back of one of the monstrous elephant-like creatures called Oliphaunts and felling the beast and all its crew. The heavy emphasis on special effects to make all of this work on screen sometimes results in some tacky interludes, like the visualisation of Frodo’s delirium whilst arriving at Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring with faces looming in a digital blur overlaying Elvish architecture captured in swooning camerawork, looking like a TV commercial for a day spa. Similarly misjudged is the depiction of the Dead Men in The Return of the King, who look like day-glo ghouls off the back of some trading cards.

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But other effects are consistently remarkable, particularly the motion-capture work applied to Serkis to realise Gollum and the techniques used to place the actors playing Hobbits and Dwarves in shot with those playing normal-sized folk, effects that are virtually seamless and let the actors interact believably. Most importantly, the effects come on with a level of giddy enthusiasm directly tied to the storytelling, and Jackson’s capacity to make them serve his impeccable sense of staging, particularly when used with a dash of appropriate poetry, as when Arwen summons a flood upon the pursuing Nazgûl, the wave plunging upon them forming foamy shapes of horses on the gallop, or the flood of dazzling light that cascades down the hillside with the Rohirrim charging the Orcs at Helm’s Deep. One critic at the time of the films’ release cleverly likened the smaller, more fleeting effects dropped seemingly casually into shots to Sergio Aragones’ margin doodles for MAD Magazine, like Legolas managing to swing himself up onto a charging horse with a casual show of his superhuman dexterity, and one of the Ents rushing to douse his burning head in floodwater.

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Despite all the outsized trappings and showmanship, the three films nonetheless usually retain a canny sense of when to slow down and contemplate, in vignettes like Gandalf’s famous speech to Frodo about weathering terrible times and deciding “what to do with the time that is given us,” or Gríma’s appeal to Éowyn, and Théoden mourning his son, slain in combat with the Orcs. Whilst it’s not exactly a character drama in the fullest sense, The Lord of the Rings keeps the human level in focus. The sense of the characters’ purpose as mythic emblems is wielded with a Dickensian sense of potent caricature and constantly mediated by humour, preventing any hint of characters becoming frieze blocks of nobility. Merry and Pippin are mostly comic relief figures at first, as is Gimli, whose very real prowess as a warrior is given a constant edge of irony by his need to talk himself up with his outsized pride matched to his small stature, engaging in a running competition with Legolas. Bloom was immediately, if briefly anointed with matinee idol status in playing the longhaired, eternally poised, stoic-faced but mischievous-eyed Legolas, the character in the trilogy most in touch with swashbuckling spirit of movies of yore, thanks to Jackson who hands him some of the movies’ most inventive action moments, as when he surfs down a flight of stairs to save his friends during the Helm’s Deep battle, and the more elaborate set-piece of him bringing down the Oliphaunt.

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Jackson was one of the first directors to truly exploit the new DVD era as he prepared considerably longer versions of the three films for home viewing release – The Return of the King was the first film to capture Best Picture whilst still technically being in production. Not everything added to the extended editions works, like a silly scene with Merry and Pippin in the forest under Treebeard’s watch, and the scene where Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are chased off by the Dead Men at first with a cascade of skulls is rather pointless. They’re also inevitably less smoothly paced, playing more as TV series-like, and in their way probably helped give birth to the age of binge-watching. Nonetheless, the extended versions are considerably more dense and coherent works, making many relationships and moves of the plot more intelligible as well as more sharply defining the character and events in the context of their world. Particularly valuable is the restored scene where Saruman and Gríma, trapped by the Ents in the sorcerer’s tower, fall out and Gríma kills Saruman before being struck by one of Legolas’ arrows. The scene’s absence from the theatrical version was particularly egregious not dealing with the fates of two of the trilogy’s major characters, and the performances by Dourif, adding to his great gallery of on-screen weirdos, and Lee, capping his career with a role that was important to him as a great fan of Tolkien.

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If there’s a lack in The Lord of the Rings, it’s one inherited in large part from the source material. We’re certainly in mythopoeic territory where the characters, both humanoid and other, exist in emblematic dimensions, ranging from Gollum as pathetic-malevolent greed to Gríma as political corruptor to Shelob as septic sexuality, Middle-earth conceived as a grand Jungian world of archetypes and Freudian dream-symbols. And, of course, a large part of the reason why the story is loved is precisely for the deliverance from sordid realities and entrance into a realm where the beauty and purity of the Elves and humble fortitude of the Hobbits coexist, where the valiant arrive on horseback to charge the lines of pure malice, and the entire universe trembles like a spider’s web to the palpable ruptures of good and evil. The Lord of the Rings, both books and films, is often criticised for black-and-white moral schemes, which isn’t entirely accurate: what it tries to do is allegorically dramatise moral ideas, like Gollum literally split between his good and bad streaks, and the confrontation with evil involving a physical and spiritual pilgrimage, in a manner that is authentically mythic. But it does lack some of that vital fire of human behaviour that drives great epics, both literary and cinematic, particular romantic and sexual desire, and protagonists who battle deep flaws.

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It’s worth noting how vivid the human characters in authentic great myths and sagas tend to be. Any glance at some of Tolkien’s sources like the Nibelungenlied, the Völsunga Saga, the Arthurian cycle, Beowulf, and the Greek myths is to behold tales filled with spectacles of human perversity, savagery, interwoven with civilising traits, the tales of mad kings and wicked queens and perfect knights who are imperfect men, wild passion, incest, ego, greed, treachery, murder, and most particularly warring value systems, an essential ingredient of classical myth and tragedy. By creating Sauron and the Orcs Tolkien purposefully removed a rival moral and social faction to the heroes, presenting instead a catch-all Other to be resisted and slain without compunction. In terms of epic movie tradition, too, there’s a lack. There isn’t anything as elemental as the clash of personal and politico-religious urges in The Ten Commandments, or as fervent as Rhett and Scarlett or even Jack and Rose, or the pointed political subtexts and well-parsed metaphors for maturation of the Star Wars films, and despite the similarities in story it never explores the social meaning of a warrior creed like Seven Samurai. The Lord of the Rings accepts the medieval proposition that government is just about as good as the individuals holding power, and whilst Frodo and the other Hobbits all learn they’re stronger than they think, there’s no psychological process to their growth. When characters behave ignobly, like Boromir, it’s the external influence of the ring that causes their lapses. The notion of a personified and objectivised evil is very much at the heart of the story but also one that helps keep the story and its dimensions in the childlike. There is passion, but it’s relentlessly chaste: Éowyn’s love for Aragorn remains unrequited; Aragorn’s love for Arwen is given some body by Mortensen and Tyler but remains an almost entirely ethereal idea. The Lord of the Rings leans heavily upon its audience’s presumed fondness for virtuous simplicity and a boyish idea of the adult world.

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Jackson and his fellow writers mediate the simplicity in this regard by fleshing out the characters’ needs and anxieties. Gríma’s desire for Éowyn is noted as his motive in the novel but given extra dimension in the films. Aragorn’s self-doubt is a recurring note that pays off in one moment of significant suspense when he seems to be arrested by Sauron’s whispered offerings, only to turn his comrades a smile before launching into battle. Perhaps Jackson’s most ambitious moment of grand and lyrical pathos comes in The Return of the King where Denethor, having ordered Faramir’s suicide attack, sits down for dinner and makes Pippin sing him a song to leaven the oppressive mood. Juice from his meal dripping like blood from his lips, Denethor listens to Pippin’s sad, spare lament, intercut with the defeat of the knights. It’s not a subtle scene – the eating is either a bit much or perfectly in tune with the kind of morality play the story emulates, depending on your point of view. But it works a powerful spell thanks to the crafting, the way Monaghan’s beautiful singing is used over images of defeat and death, and the spectacle of the aged potentate’s oblivious arrogance. Jackson touches upon a sense of futility and regret in the warfare the rest of the series generally delights in, examining the difference between selfless communal bravery and the misuse of power, presenting not a meaningful warrior death fighting against bottomless evil but something more familiar, young men dying to satisfy the egotisms of their rulers. Jackson may well have been moved to include the scene given the films’ release amidst the furore of the post-9/11 moment, a moment the films somewhat incidentally fed into and when some critics took aim at the films’ enshrining of martial valour.

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Denethor’s presence in The Return of the King gives the trilogy something it otherwise lacks, a character who might well have stumbled of a Norse saga, embodying the more familiar evils of human nature but also with flashes of its more pitiable side, a wounded overlord whose decline is tied to the teetering state of his realm. To a certain extent Gríma inhabits a similar zone, but he might as well have “villain” tattooed on his forehead: even his last stab at redemption is a pathetic murder. Denethor is splendidly awful with his consuming blend of bitterness, pessimism, pain, and cruelty, constantly belittling Faramir as a fool and weakling, and venerating the fallen Boromir. His gestures of grandiose, nihilistic impulse reach their apex when he tries burn himself and Faramir alive together, only foiled through Gandalf and Pippin intervening to save Faramir. Denethor’s end makes a good example of the adaptors’ augmenting touch: where in the novel Denethor dies in the full grip of crazed will, Jackson votes him a moment of clarity and then pity, noticing Faramir is alive and for the first time seeming to actually love his son, just before he catches fire and dies falling from the city battlements. Denethor’s subordinating use of his sons as mirrors to his own vanity and self-loathing has a clear connection with Jackson’s previous studies in sick psychological dynamics, like the relationship of the two girls in Heavenly Creatures where the offspring elect to annihilate their repressing elders, and in Brain Dead where the son’s squirming Oedipal repression is finally dramatized when he’s swallowed back up his zombie mother’s womb.

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Tolkien always rejected the idea his novel was a metaphor for World War II and Sauron a Hitlerian figure, but it still feels likely the logic of his own time thoroughly informed that of his book as well as his understanding of the historical perspective of ancient Britons. The story recreates a certain parochial vision where evil is out there in the simmering east and south, with the abhorred land of Mordor, and the Orcs, a race of diseased and devolved beings, representing everything foreign and threatening. Tolkien was despite his overall conservatism reputedly firmly anti-racist, and the storyline reflects that, presenting the different ‘races’ who overcome all their sometimes vast differences in worldview and understanding and fractious history to work together, embodied most crucially by the slow-warming friendship of Legolas and Gimli, as well as the army of Elf warriors who come to fight with Men at Helm’s Deep, and the ultimate choice of Théoden to ride to Gondor’s aid despite them doing nothing for Rohan. Another one of Jackson’s great visualisations, something of an apotheosis of epic moviemaking, comes when Gandalf, ignoring Denethor’s hostile refusal, gets Pippin to light a signal fire, one of a chain set up to communicate between the two kingdoms and call for aid: Jackson’s soaring aerial shots of jagged mountains and remote sentries lighting each fire, all set to Shore’s most lushly momentous scoring, capped by the long, boding pause as Théoden is told “Gondor calls for aid,” before he answers, “And Rohan will answer.”

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When anticipating the third film’s release it was difficult to see Jackson topping the Helm’s Deep battle, but then came the battle in and around Minas Tirith, a sequence marked by ever-ratcheting levels of beautifully choreographed craziness, complete with Nazgûl riding their flying dragon-like creatures to maraud over the city, and the onslaught of the Oliphaunts. Théoden leads the Rohirrim in a grand charge, and Éowyn and Merry, both forbidden to enter the fight but doing it anyway, weave their way through the carnage before finally facing down the Witch King after he attacks Théoden and mortally wounds. Éowyn is close to being my favourite character in the trilogy, first glimpsed as the picture-perfect Saxon princess struggling to stay out of Gríma’s clutches and trying to stave off a depressive stupor, before eventually donning armour and riding secretly to war with Merry at her side as another of the heroes determined to prove she’s stronger than anyone knows. Otto, despite a scene when she lapses into a strange mid-Pacific brogue (perhaps a sign of the production’s occasional shifts in direction), is a luminous presence, and gives the film one of its major sources of heart, building to the moment when she reveals herself to the Witch King and declares, “I am no man,” the greatest moment of on-screen girl power since Ripley’s choice words to the alien queen in Aliens (1986).

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Whilst much smaller in scale, Frodo and Sam’s encounter with Shelob, into whose lair Gollum successfully tricks Frodo into entering after separating him and Sam through conniving, is just as potent a scene, thanks largely to the incredibly good effects used to realise the monstrous arachnid and the sickly intimacy of the struggle: the sight of Shelob silently stalking Frodo through crags is something I can easily imagine sending arachnophobes into fits. Sam’s reappearance just as Shelob is about to consume the paralysed and trussed Frodo is the best of Jackson’s many last-second interventions, Sam’s emergence as the ideal yeoman hero crystallising as he confronts the monster with sword and bottled starlight, a magical gift from Galadriel painful to the dark-dwelling monster. Jackson’s gift for staging extends in the final, depleting trek to Mount Doom, whilst the survivors of the great battle at Minas Tirith, led by Aragorn, march to Mordor’s gate to distract Sauron and his legions and give the Hobbits a chance to gain their goal. Jackson’s elaborate tricks to make the experience ever more agonising are deployed to their best effect here as the final yards prove the most gruelling, not just in physical exhaustion but the bitter final twist of Frodo finally succumbing to the ring’s influence and refusing to throw it into the lava, closing the circle as he stands in the same place as Isildur millennia earlier and falls prey to the same, undeniable influence.

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Only this time the joker in the deck proves to be Gollum whose need for the ring seem to even exceed its creator’s, assaulting Frodo at the threshold and biting his finger off to get the ring, only for the enraged Hobbit to push his doppelganger into the fiery chasm, Gollum so lost in his utter joy at reclaiming the precious he doesn’t even notice as he falls, finally burning up with the ring in the lava. Jackson gleefully goes for broke in the sight of Sauron’s tower collapsing, his great eye quivering in agony and despair before exploding, and the ground swallowing up the Orc army, before Gandalf flies in to rescue Sam and Frodo before the perish in the lava streams. The final passages of The Return of the King, which frustrated some in offering several potential endings, see Aragorn installed as king of Gondor and marrying Arwen and obliging everyone to pay homage to the heroism of the Hobbits, who then return home and try to settle back into life, something Frodo eventually finds he can’t do. So Frodo is invited to leave Middle-earth with Elrond, Galdriel, Bilbo, and Gandalf and head off the Undying Lands, making his farewells to Sam, Merry, and Pippin. The embrace of a melancholy tone in the concluding scenes, the awareness of the great conflict claiming costs from its hero that can’t be healed, invests the trilogy with its last and finest flash of stylised truth, Frodo’s ascension to the status of a legendary figure one that also cleaves him from the living, growing, dying world. It’s left to Sam, naturally, to return home and resume the business of living. It’s a reminder that for all the heroic lustre and otherworldly lyricism invested in the material it’s a work written by someone who knew how hard coming home from war could be, and it’s this final motif, at once sobering and yet also deepening the mythopoeic resonance, Jackson respects to the utmost.

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The Lord of the Rings has proved both the great moment and a bit of a millstone in terms of Jackson’s career. His subsequent efforts, King Kong (2005), The Lovely Bones (2009), and The Hobbit trilogy (2012-14), were all greeted with varying levels of disappointment, in large part because each of them was beholden to pre-existing material Jackson’s approach strained against, but also all sported passages of great filmmaking. Whilst there was some legitimacy to complaints The Hobbit films were overindulged, and the attempts to synthesise an equal kind of epic story out of a slim book could not match what came before it, nonetheless Jackson used the second trilogy to explore the troubles afflicting Middle-earth largely skimmed over in The Lord of the Rings films, like the schism of Elves and Dwarves and the general spectacle of greed, and giving greater psychological dimension to figures like Bilbo and Thorin Oakenshield, the latter emerging as an authentic antihero. Jackson dug deeper to find the material to find more of the satirical aspect he once thrived on, at the risk of spurning the lustre of heroic escapism the first trilogy so perfectly enshrined. The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy has its missteps and hyperbolic passages, but they’re a part of its overall, giddy texture. There were and are few cinema experiences to match it, an achievement that, so far, set the bar for Hollywood just a little too high to reach again.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Fantasy, Historical

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Director: John Milius
Screenwriters: John Milius, Oliver Stone

By Roderick Heath

Conan the Cimmerian was created by Robert E. Howard, a Texan writer who committed suicide at a young age after writing a string of stories about his ancient warrior hero, mostly published by the fabled pulp magazine Weird Tales in the early 1930s. Howard took inspiration from the rugged landscapes of his native state, particularly around the Rio Grande, whilst his vision of a primal champion in Conan was synthesised from a stew of classical and scholarly sources and anthropological theories of dubious worth and validity. His Conan roamed the vast spaces of Eurasia in an epoch, as the memorable opening narration of the film puts it in slightly paraphrasing Howard, “between the time the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas,” battling not just other warriors but also monsters, sorcerers, sacrificial cults, and many a tyrannical ruler. Rising from an obscure background as the son of a village blacksmith to become a famed pirate and mercenary and eventually capturing his own kingdom, Howard’s Conan was nonetheless also an intelligent and chivalrous figure, a figure who, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, condensed both stubbornly evinced humanity and instinctive natural potency into a singular frame, inhabiting two zones of being at once.

Howard’s stories retained a cultish following amongst sci-fi and fantasy writers, with talents like Poul Anderson, Robert Jordan, and L. Sprague de Camp all writing their own stories featuring the character. The famous cover art Frank Frazetta supplied for such extensions to the mythos helped keep the cult alive, soon backed up by comic books in the 1970s. The success of Star Wars (1977), which fused science fiction with fantasy and captured the imagination of a generation, sparked a brief moment when producers and studios became interested in fantasy films again. This resulted in some lovably cheap and inventive emulations like Terry Marcel’s Hawk the Slayer (1980) and Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster (1982), and a pair of truly great entries in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and Conan the Barbarian. John Milius, the most notoriously eccentric, intense, and intransigent member of the Movie Brat director generation, chose to take on the challenge of bringing Conan to the big screen after shooting his plaintive surfing tale Big Wednesday (1978), and he talked entrepreneur-producer Dino De Laurentiis and the rights owner Edward R. Pressman into joining forces to produce it. An equally intense and wilful, if politically rather dissimilar young Hollywood talent in Oliver Stone, fresh off his breakthrough success writing Midnight Express (1978), had written a script for Pressman. But his purportedly post-apocalyptic take was potentially far too expensive, and Milius fought to revise it.

When it came to who should play the lead, the filmmakers faced the problem of finding someone who could physically inhabit the role of a brawny ancient warrior and act well enough to carry the film. Pressman had kept one man in mind since watching the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron (1978), an Austrian immigrant who had taken out the Mister Universe title four times, and projected unique charisma despite his thick accent and mouthful of a name – Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conan the Barbarian, a big hit on first release that soon spawned its own wave of imitations and rip-offs, has retained despite critical sniffiness its own, special, seemingly ever-growing cult status. One particular, elusive aspect of Conan the Barbarian’s appeal is the way what seems to be its faults prove eventually to be part of its unique power. Rather than offering a straightforwardly action-packed, campy fantasy-adventure, Milius set out to create a movie that plays essentially as a fantastical bildungsroman, an attempt to encompass a hero’s growth from small boy to a man gaining full maturity in the sense not only of physical strength but also mental freedom and moral choice.

This puts Conan the Barbarian in a zone with other great works of fantastical metaphor, like Tolkien’s alternating visions of individual and communal questing and the original Star Wars trilogy’s portrait of adolescence giving way to adulthood: Conan the Barbarian has a very similar motif, but goes further in following its protagonist into the consequences of that adulthood. Milius was certainly assimilating aspects of his friend George Lucas’ hit, borrowing the voice of Darth Vader James Earl Jones to play another dark father figure to his emerging hero, albeit one tweaked to Milius’ sensibility. One accidentally self-imposed hurdle Conan the Barbarian has to surmount is that its early scenes are so vivid in their soaring, violent, operatic evocation of prehistoric lore and drama the rest has a hard time living up to them. The opening narration, voiced by Akiro (Mako Iwamatsu), later revealed as a wizard and eventual helpmate of Conan’s, makes like an ancient storyteller with his throaty voice heard over a field of pitch black, beginning his account of the great hero’s life in “the days of high adventure.”

The opening credits, scored by Basil Poledouris’ designedly awesome main theme “The Anvil of Crom,” portray Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a sword, as his wife (Nadiuska) and young son (Jorge Sanz) look on and help work the billows, in a scene bathed in the light of furnace flames and molten metal. The glowing blade is doused in snow at dawn and the last artisanal features added to complete a masterpiece of craftsmanship, at least by the standards of Conan’s Cimmerian tribe living snowy folds under soaring mountains: the sword is creation not merely of martial artistry but a nexus of cultural and communal expression, implement and totem, tool and artwork. One rite gives way to another as father imparts the lore of their tribe’s god Crom and the Riddle of Steel to his son as they sit on a mountain peak, boiling clouds rushing overhead. The Riddle of Steel, supposedly a piece of arcane wisdom left on the battlefields of ancient gods after some grand Titanomachy, actually has nothing to do with metallurgy and everything to do with humanity, and grasping the answer is the process of a lifetime, immediately setting the terms of Conan’s life, even as his father advises the only thing he can ultimately trust is a good sword.

This lesson proves timely as Conan is about to lose all contact with his roots. A band of mounted raiders, led by the mysterious warlord Thulsa Doom (Jones) and his henchmen Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven-Ole Thorsen), riding out of the wintry forests and attack the Cimmerian village, slaughtering all in sight, including Conan’s father, mauled to death by dogs after being wounded in the battle. Conan’s mother readies to defend her son, but Thulsa pacifies her with his oddly limpid, empathetic-seductive mesmerist’s gaze before, in a uniquely shocking moment, casually decapitating her, her headless body swaying away from Conan’s grasp before the boy even realises what’s happened. Conan is taken in chains with the rest of the village children and sold into slavery, driven across the frigid landscape and into a vast, craggy desert region where they’re chained to a huge wheel driving a millstone and forced to keep it turning day in and day out. Milius simply and brilliantly conveys the passage of time in montage as the number of slaves pushing the wheel depletes, whether dying from exhaustion or sold off, but Conan remains and grows, ironically refashioned from a small orphaned boy into a hulking, powerful man through his captors’ cruelties, until he’s pushing the wheel alone.

Here we gain our first glimpse of Schwarzenegger, lifting his shaggy-maned head as he stoically pushes the machine. Conan is bought by a gladiator trainer, Red Beard (Luis Barboo), who pitches him into death matches with vicious duellists for the pleasure of raving audiences. Conan’s great strength and instinctive fighting talent quickly turns him from combat grist to beloved champion, but Conan lacks any sense of his existence beyond the pleasure of victory and the crowd’s cheers. Soon Red Beard takes him east to be trained in swordcraft, and there he’s also introduced to less immediately practical aspects of life, including reading and being given slave girls to impregnate. Conan seems to be forged into the perfect weapon for service to other warriors, glimpsed sitting chained and cross-legged in the camp of some Mongol warlords, a tamed beast perfectly annunciating a blunt and brutal warrior credo. But Red Beard soon takes him out of camp and sets him free, for reasons Akiro in voiceover can only speculate over, as if his owner sensed something untamed, despite his pet status, residing yet in Conan, demanding freedom even without knowing it.

Fleeing wild dogs across the wilderness, Conan falls into a hidden pit and finds himself in an underground chamber, part of some lost ruin of a fallen civilisation, possibly Atlantis, where a long-dead king still sits on his throne, patches of skin and bone still attached to dusty bones. Conan takes the king’s sword and finds it, despite its caking of dirt and age, far superior to any other sword he’s seen, able to cut the shackles still on his ankles away. This long introduction, taking a half-hour to unfold, is particularly notable in managing to convey Conan’s stages of early life whilst playing almost as a silent film. Only a few scattered lines of dialogue and passages of Akiro’s narration are heard, and even those are essentially unnecessary. Milius displays total mastery over cinematic storytelling, creating the mystique of Conan and his family and conveying the nature of the tragedy that comes upon them on an iconographic level, everything rendered larger-than-life and classically vivid. The spur of Thulsa’s raid, his desire for steel weapons, registers in the crucial gesture of Rexor gifting him the sword Conan’s father died wielding, the same one he was forging at the start, whilst his gifts of supernatural power are evinced in his act of murderous mesmerism. Conan’s growth on the wheel and schooling in a cruel, combative life in the gladiator pits is as close to perfect as visual exposition gets.

Whilst the simultaneous emergence of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and the first Harry Potter films finally made fantasy film a powerful pop culture mode befitting the age of blockbusters and prestige television, it was long a notoriously difficult genre to sell. Ever since the monumental sets, huge battles, and amazing steam-puppet dragon featured in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), it was plainly a genre fit for expansive cinematic visions armed with big budgets and significant production values. But fantasy was also a fairly esoteric genre rarely embraced with great passion by mainstream cinema audiences to a degree where producers and studios felt much confidence in making such epics. Occasionally major works like The Thief of Bagdad (1940) were made, whilst scattered international entries drew on various local mythic traditions like Alexander Ptushko’s versions of Russia folklore and Japanese films like The Birth of Japan (1958), but for decades Ray Harryhausen’s beloved stop-motion movies drawn from legends and the Italian peplum genre offered one, epitomised by Mario Bava’s Hercules at the Centre of the Earth (1961), with fervently colourful visions achieved on low budgets, were the only regular examples seen by mass audiences. But this sustenance came at a price, ghettoising the genre for a long time as a zone of wooden musclemen, cheap sets, and tacky monsters, made chiefly for very young audiences.

Conan the Barbarian stood for a long time as one of the few, true examples of a well-produced, highly ambitious fantasy film, and one that represented a rather more mature, or at least more pubescent, wing of the genre at that. Where on the page works like Tolkien’s great sprawls of mythopoeic imagination, built on the example of writers like Lord Dunsany and E.R. Eddison, epitomised the loftiest reaches of the High Fantasy style, Howard’s early Conan stories helped codify a fierce, weird, violent and sexually aware variation, the so-called “Sword and Sorcery” style. That style would eventually inspire eccentric riffs like Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné tales, and birth more recent, sophisticated and morally complex works like Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher cycle and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, with their emphasis on vast world-building, cruel realism mixed with familiar tropes, and slatherings of sex, violence, and satirical humour. With Conan the Barbarian Milius managed to perfectly reproduce and amplify the visual lore of the early Sword and Sorcery style presented through illustrations from the likes of Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, one where scantily-clad musclemen and amazons clad with glowing bronze skin battle dragons in strange and teeming landscapes, amidst a mythical past replete with orgies, dancing girls, musclemen, concussive combat, and all the other paraphernalia of macho onanism.

Milius and Stone’s efforts with their script nonetheless took Conan some distance from Howard’s original concept. Some characters are amalgamations of those found in the stories, like Valeria, who assimilates many aspects of the pirate queen Bêlit, and Thulsa Doom was borrowed from another of Howard’s properties, the King Kull stories. Howard’s Conan was never enslaved and maintained his liberty jealously, whereas the film essentially concerns itself with Conan relearning a sense of his own identity and mission after being schooled in ruthlessly pragmatic things. Milius’ portrayal of Conan as sometimes callow and crude, essentially an overgrown boy on an emotional level, once he’s actually let loose in the world, sits somewhat at odds with the character’s gallant and sophisticated streak in the books. There is a creative reason for this in terms of the film’s overall design, of course, as the journey towards full manhood is Milius’ subject here: Conan is becoming himself, complete as a fantasy projection as a certain ideal of elemental manhood. Milius remakes Conan in the image of his own protagonists, including the hero of his screenplay for Jeremiah Johnson (1972), who thrives beyond civilisation and learns to survive terrible losses, and the surfers of Big Wednesday, who similarly discover the pain of aging is necessary as they leave behind their immature traits and rise to the state of mystic kings in their battle with nature. As in Apocalypse Now (1979), Conan embarks on a mission to bring down a self-appointed messiah. Like the title character of Dillinger (1973) and Sheikh Raisuli of The Wind and the Lion (1975), Conan becomes at once outlaw and a momentary manifestation of the eternal romantic hero, creations out of time that only manifest when history and societies have entered a state of flux.

Conan’s path begins to take shape when he comes across the hut of a solitary witch who seems to promise knowledge that can guide him, demanding her price of having sex with her. This seemingly easy price proves rather more steep when at the point of orgasm she transforms into a vampiric creature: Conan manages to hurl her into the hearth, whereupon she becomes a fireball that flees into the night, her cackling laugh heard all the while. Before her transformation she directs him to the city of Zamora, “crossroads of the world.” In the morning Conan finds a man chained up behind her hut, Subotai (Perry Lopez), who claims to be a great warrior but fell for the same trap as Conan. The two men are fast friends and allies, becoming thieves to live whilst Conan pursues his quest to track down Thulsa Doom through his twinned snake symbol. Eventually he learns this is now the emblem of the Snake Cult of Set, a rapidly spreading religious cult attracting young adherents but with a reputation for foul rituals and nocturnal murder. Conan and Subotai decide to break into one of the cult’s towers hoping to rob the jewels kept within, and meet up with Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), another thief, and they quickly make an alliance. The trio successfully rob the sect’s treasures whilst one of the female cultists is prepared for sacrifice to a huge snake living in the tower’s basement, which, unknown to Conan, is supervised by Rexor. Conan is forced to kill the snake rites before he and Subotai flee whilst Valeria runs interference, with Conan pausing to snatch a medallion emblazoned with the cult’s symbol. After escaping, Conan and Valeria become lovers.

Woven in amongst the high and elemental drama are flourishes of humour that keep the film from becoming too onerous whilst resisting feeling shoehorned or removed from the rest of its finite texture. One of Conan’s swordmasters, after slapping his face in censure for a poor move, suddenly swivelling and kicking another trainee in the testicles for grinning at Conan’s humiliation. Later, Conan and Subotai wander about Zamora, stoned on “black lotus,” recalling the heroes of Big Wednesday in their foolish-innocent exploration of the world, and in a gag pinched from Cat Ballou (1965) Conan groggily punches out a camel. “Success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary,” Akiro dryly notes in narrating as the three thieves use their riches to indulge hedonism until Conan faints face-first in his soup, a jokey moment that nonetheless reasserts the basic preoccupation with Conan’s story as a journey through life. More immediately, indulgence robs their keen edge, leaving them easy targets when some guards sent by the King of Zamora, Osric, come to round them up. Osric, played in in a peach of a seriocomic cameo by Max von Sydow, seems to be berating the captive trio but actually wants to congratulate them: Osric loathes the snake cult and is happy the thieves have offended its mysterious leader and his minions. With his own daughter (Valérie Quennessen) recently seduced into the cult’s ranks and their assassins sowing havoc, Osric offers Conan and company his fortune simply to travel to the cult’s base, the Mountain of Power, and kidnap his daughter back. Valeria and Subotai want to run away with their riches, but Conan sets out alone in the belief he will find his nemeses. And sure enough, he does: quickly found out as he tries to infiltrate the cult, Conan is brutalised and brought before his foe.

The intoxicating fantasy allure of Conan and his world is, of course, the dream of unfettered freedom and perfect self-reliance. Milius’ shots of Conan and Subotai running cross vast landscapes, driven on from locale to exotic locale by the sweep of the photography and Poledouris’ romantic strains combine to create the kinds of cinematic visions it’s easy to want to live within. Similarly, Milius distils Conan and Valeria’s love affair into a series of wordless shots that see them moving from first gestures of tenderness – Conan caresses her palm with a huge jewel stolen from the temple – to sexual pleasure, happy companionship, and finally a crucial image of Valeria gathering Conan’s head to her chest, making it perfectly plain that they’ve fallen deeply in love through her look commingling ardour and shock, the surprise of two lonely, hardened souls finding each-other, a moment counterbalanced by the forlorn sight of Valeria awakening to find Conan gone. The quality of warmth and good-humour connects Conan and his small but growing band, and imbues the relished violence and gaudy trashiness with more than mere ornamental amusement: the essential isolation of the characters in a lawless, careless world is a constant refrain, and the assailed likeableness of the heroes is vital.

If The Terminator (1984) would fully cement Schwarzenegger as a movie star by cleverly exploiting his formidable and alien side, Conan the Barbarian nonetheless gave him his starring break. Whereas in The Terminator the façade of Schwarzenegger’s body would be peeled to reveal steel and mechanics, an illusory construct betraying the breakdown of natural reference points in a specifically modern fashion, Conan the Barbarian shows us rather the perfect body being built, woven in muscle and sinew, as the product of subjugation and adversity, a fantasy ideal of masculinity beheld in its primal cradle. And yet Schwarzenegger’s casting was most canny in comprehending his potential appeal was based not simply in his honed physique and stature but in the almost childlike aspect to his persona. The boyish enthusiasm he expressed even in talking about adult things in Pumping Iron, and which would later make him beloved to young fans for which he represented a sort of cartoon vision of their own ideals of adulthood, informs his Conan on a fundamental level. The character retains a quality of innocence amidst bloodshed and depravity, the violence of his severing from his roots and the segregation of his life from the common run in maturing leaving him bewildered by the world at large, his driving need for revenge long defined by the distraught and immoderate quality of an orphaned boy.

The potentially discomforting scene when Conan is given a slave girl to breed with by the swordmasters is marked by Conan’s appeasing gentleness in calming the fearful girl and wrapping her in a blanket, a gentlemanly act that ironically makes her entirely pliable, and Conan’s expression of curiosity slowly becoming lust reveals some of Schwarzenegger’s nascent skill in gestural acting. The quality of innocence returns at crucial intervals, particularly during his affair with Valeria, plain in that key moment of mutual recognition and also in Valeria’s sorry appeal to Conan not to go after Thulsa, confessing all her feelings of longing whilst surviving alone: despite their strength and guile as survivors, they’re both eternal exiles. Conan gains another oddball friend when he encounters the wizard Akiro (who wouldn’t be named on screen until the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, 1984), living in a haunted, deserted burial ground of ancient titans on a stretch of coastal plain. Conan and Akiro’s point of bonding is found when the wizard tries to ward off his hulking visitor with warnings of his supernatural power, only to earn Conan’s sceptical laughter, and they connect in their mutually sarcastic sense of the absurd.

Akiro explains he keeps the spirits inhabiting the mounds company with his mystic arts in exchange for the peace and solicitude he gains from living in a taboo spot where even Thulsa Doom won’t bother him. When Conan takes leave of him, he poses as one of the cultists heading to the Mountain of Power. Here Milius indulges some satire on hippiedom and religion in general with the dippy, flower child-like cultists and empty mysticism. “What do you see?” one monk asks him he as she directs him to look into a sacred pool: “Err – eternity!” Conan replies, to the monk’s slightly bewildered approval. An uglier edge to the satire manifests as a male monk tries to seduce Conan under the cover of spiritual ministry. This vignette courts homophobia, but also makes a lucid point about exploiters and abusers hiding within officially benign and beneficent organisations like churches. This idea is reiterated on a more ambitious and crucial scale as Thulsa Doom emerges as the head of the cult, preaching an embracing but apocalyptically cleansing faith to the young cultists he attracts, whilst actually practising foul and egomaniacal arts behind the scenes.

The cult of Set is revealed to be an apparatus designed to snare vast amounts of wealth, power, sexual partners for his core enclave of followers including Rexor and Thorgrim, and human foodstuff for Thulsa who proves something not exactly human. In this portion of the story Milius nods to his steeping in noir sources, including something Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse, in presenting the cult as opportunistic gangster sleazes, mixed with likeness to manipulative faux-gurus like Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Conan and friends’ rugged individualism and practicality provides the only firm counterbalance. Milius opens the film with a popular quote from Nietzsche – “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – which might be gilding the lily a tad, but it’s also an idea it certainly weaves into its texture, most literally in the mill wheel montage and connecting the rest of the story and its characters. The Riddle of Steel, as Thulsa eventually explains it when he and Conan finally meet again, is connected to this: “Steel isn’t strong, boy – flesh is stronger…What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” Thulsa illustrates his point by encouraging one of his slavish adherents to jump from a cliff face to her death, the power of the mind to convince itself that reality isn’t real when gripped by a powerful idea from without, exposing the deepest nerve of Conan’s formative trauma and the ultimate end goal of his journey as gaining sufficient strength of mind to threw off Thulsa’s mesmeric control, and the things it represents.

The vignettes within the film, which gift titles to Poledouris’ compositions, have a symbolic specificity that signals a sense of the stages of life enacted through Conan’s journey. The wheel of pain. The gift of fury. The tree of woe. Wifeing. All feel like places we’ve all visited from time to time – tiring labour to survive, spurs to strive, pains to be shed, intimate happiness to be gained. Thulsa nominates himself for the role of Conan’s true, spiritual father and Darwinian mentor in forcing him to grow into a powerful man. Thulsa, finally coming into proper focus during his confrontation with Conan after his capture, gives Jones his chance to deploy satanic majesty in the character’s outsized charisma and air of enigmatic potency, shifting with musical precision from note to note as he admonishes Conan like a teacher chastising a naughty student, beams in conspiratorial glee at Conan when he proposes answering the riddle of steel and then exulting in his own strength as a controller of minds and bodies, before finally condemning Conan to be crucified. Jones’ voice, muffled in his famous work as Darth Vader, here gets to resound in all its plangent dimensions: who else could pronounce the words “Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe” so well? Conan’s ordeal on the tree, which sees him snapping a vulture’s neck with his teeth when it stars gnawing on him, is a desperate passage that almost costs him his life, stranded on the twisted bough on a stark and baking plain. Finally he’s saved by Milius’ love for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), that is, by Subotai appearing in the distance and nearing at a run that still feels painfully slow, and Conan starts a febrile laugh that conks out as he falls unconscious, at the very limit of his reserves.

Like all his Movie Brat alumni, Milius had a private roster of beloved movies he would repeatedly reference, wound deep into the texture of his films. This aspect of Conan the Barbarian is particularly notable as Milius tries to create a film sustaining the same self-mythologising texture as certain outsized and legendary epic films like Lawrence of Arabia, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). The millwheel sequence nods to Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), another film preoccupied with the nexus of physical and moral strength. Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) with its intensely rhythmic and stylised evocation of the past is also repeatedly nodded to (Prokofiev’s score for the film was actually used in Conan the Barbarian’s teaser trailer), and Milius directly recreates some shots from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) whilst taking licence from its basic plot of a sundry band of outsiders battling a malignant army with modest but lethal craft. Of course there’s also the assimilated legacy of every sword-and-sandal flick ever made, as well as many a Western, Sergio Leone in particular.

Another, less expected but insistently referenced touchstone is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964). Whilst Kobayashi’s stylised and artificial approach to evoking the past was contrary to Milius’ attempts to conjure a vivid and three-dimensional world, nonetheless something of the same aesthetic runs right through Conan the Barbarian, most specifically in the way Milius shoots Conan’s encounter with the witch woman, signalling transformation in the same way as the “Yukionna” chapter with a shift to a cold blue light, and more direct reference comes later when Akiro paints Conan’s body all over with sacred symbols a la the “Hoichi the Earless” chapter. Some part of Conan the Barbarian’s more singular achievement lies is Milius’ rigour in trying to convey a sense of landscape and setting as concrete and palpable, almost a living thing in its own right, delivering in a manner fantasy cinema had long deserved but never quite received before. The film was shot in Spain by Jeremiah Johnson’s cinematographer Duke Callaghan (with some work by Gilbert Taylor, who dropped out of the production), a cliché locale to film fantasy and historical landscapes by that point, and yet Milius managed to make it feel unfamiliar, a place ripped out of some dark Jungian bole.

From the jagged, snowy mountains of the opening to the sun-baked plains and zoom shots across a wind-tossed sea into the setting sun, Milius made great use of Spanish locations, where ancient Roman and Moorish structures readily supplied Cyclopean ruins, helping deliver the ambience of a world perched between an unknowable legendary past and something more familiar, an ambience that is fascinatingly crucial in much fantasy fiction because past civilisations so often felt just as haunted by their ancestors as we do ours. Conan the Barbarian’s sense of grandeur and galvanising physicality is worked through Milius’ visual language, mostly purveyed through wide and master shots so as to better drink in the athleticism of his actors, with little of the kind of cheat editing used today to make actors look like great fighters. And to give them context in their surrounds, both the locations and the detail and solidity of Ron Cobb’s sets, with a sequence like the heroes’ crashing Thulsa’s orgy unfolding in a painterly fashion, replete with odd, did-I-really-see-that? touches. Watching the film back in the days of VHS and TV-cropped prints was always to lose something because of Milius and Callaghan’s use of deep-focus, widescreen framing.

One of the few others films I can think of to conjure such a rarefied sense of a fantasy landscape as Milius’ film is Ronald Moore’s The Silent Flute (1979), which was adapted from a project begun by Bruce Lee trying to illustrate spiritual concepts inherent in the kind of Zen philosophy attached to martial arts. Milius’ themes are of course earthier, his rugged individualist and Libertarian ideals illustrated in the only kind of setting where they’re vaguely tenable. Part of Conan’s journey is learning how necessary his allies are after his obsessiveness almost gets him killed, saved by Subotai because he and Valeria followed him, and Akiro does his best to keep his soul and body together with mystic healing, whilst warning that the powerful spirits living amidst the mounds will try to claim Conan. Valeria and Subotai literally fight off death in the form of the creepy animated spirits that flock around Conan and try to make off with his body, until his eyes flicker open in the dawn light after a long, dark night of magic and terror. Valeria’s promise to Akiro that she will pay the toll for keeping Conan alive to the spirits later prove to have very real consequences.

Milius chose his lead performers because the film needed physical types, including Davidson and Thorsen who were taller than Schwarzenegger and looked intimidating enough to be threats to him. Bergman, a dancer who had appeared in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), earned a few more fantasy roles thanks to her part here, including the villain of Red Sonja (1985) and the title character in the bizarre She (1985). Her acting limitations quickly became clear, but she’s still nonetheless one of the great elements of Conan the Barbarian, first appearing out of the shadows and squaring off against Conan and Subotai with a sinuous sense of the sword and immediately presenting a potent, female kind of toughness linked with a depth of feeling that’s still rather rare-feeling in movies. She saunters through the rest with her virile physicality, bouncing off walls during sword fights and leaping from the top of the Tower of Set with a laughing cry of joy in impudent survival, and eyeing two opponents and slapping her sword against her palm like a scolding mother. Despite a couple of flat line readings she’s mostly excellent at inhabiting Valeria as a character, with her unconventional, lived-in beauty and expressive eyes full of feeling in her love scenes, her flashes of deep passion and fearfulness running under the warrior. Lopez, a professional surfer and pal of Milius, was saddled with having much of his dialogue as Subotai dubbed by another actor to stilted effect, a touch that ironically helps the film keep touch with its peplum and spaghetti western forebears, and also unnecessary as his real, not inapt voice can be heard in a crucial late scene.

As with many of Milius’ works it’s easy to fetishize the many instances of bluff machismo: lines like Conan’s statement about what is best in life to the Mongol warlords (actually a variation on a historical quote from Genghis Khan) have achieved a free-floating life in the annals of awesome cherished by fans with varying degrees of irony. But also as ever in Milius’ work there’s also a uniquely elegiac streak, flashes of intensely romantic poetic feeling throughout. Of course, the outstanding support he gets throughout comes from Poledouris’ score, which is one of the best ever composed for a film. Poledouris was another surfing buddy of Milius’ and one who had studied under Miklos Rosza. He rose to the challenge of providing Milius with a score to provide the connective tissue for his dialogue-light film. His big, Rosza-esque score is wound deeply into the film’s intensely rhythmic structure, like the two long sequences where Conan, Valeria, and Subotai infiltrate enemy lairs with sneaky art before all hell breaks loose, and the incredible twinned sequences of the raid on Conan’s village and the build to the final fight.

Conan’s recovery from his ordeal is signalled when he returns to exercising with his sword, and soon he and his friends prepare to snatch away the Princess, who has become Thulsa’s glaze-eyed and monomaniacal priestess, officiating at his ceremonies with hands wrapped in snakes a la ancient Minoan art. Sneaking into the underground lair beneath the Mountain of Power, they witness scenes of gleeful depravity and sleaze: Thulsa’s henchmen lounge in an orgy pit amidst acres of pliable, slavish flesh, whilst the acolytes are served up stew filled with body parts, whilst Thulsa, the Princess seated at his feet, transforms into a serpentine creature as if all the better to lord over the mortals and indulge his appetites. Milius and Poledouris turn this scene into an odd kind of dance number with the actors moving in choreographed fashion as Conan, Valeria, and Subotai nimbly creep round the edges of this spectacle before attacking, whilst the scoring provides a bolero-esque rhythm offsetting the sick glamour of the bad guys doing bad guy things. When the time finally comes the invaders hack up guards and grab the Princess, Thulsa in snake form slithering away before Conan can attack him. The heroes fight their way out successfully, but Thulsa, using one of the snakes he has such mystical affinity with as an arrow (!), manages to plant one in Valeria, and she dies in Conan’s arms.

As if in recognition and salute, the spirits of the mounds allow Conan to light a fire where usually none can burn for Valeria’s funeral pyre, the pyre erupting in a spectacular fireball that signifies Valeria’s annunciation even as it certainly also gives away their location to Thulsa, so Conan, Subotai, and Akiro begin preparing for the inevitable fight when Thulsa and his warriors come for them. Valeria’s death and funeral, channelling Bêlit’s in the stories, also echoes the death of Jeremiah Johnson’s wife as a moment of crucial loss that signifies Milius’ hero is condemned to forge ahead alone on the most fundamental level but still retaining her memory as a source of strength, signified most literally in the climax when Valeria appears as a glittering Valkyrie long enough to save Conan from Rexor who almost overwhelms him. Anticipation mounts as the heroes build their traps and defences around the mounds, smartly mediated with a meditative pause as Conan and Subotai muse on their exiled, rootless, violent lives and Conan recalls the fresh wind of spring in his homeland.

Poledouris’ music surges to ridiculously awesome heights in a sequence patterned after the charge of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, as Thulsa’s mounted raiders appear on the horizon and charge in for battle, their looming, steel-clad forms and thundering steeds intercut with Conan making a memorably pithy appeal to Crom to grant him revenge: “All that matters is that two stood against many…and if you do not listen, then to hell with you!” Fortunately, Crom seems to be the kind of god who helps those who help themselves. The waiting Conan and Subotai, with some clumsy but effective aid from Akiro, manage to evade and bring down most of the henchmen in a bloody tumult, Thorgrim finishing up skewered upon a mantrap and Rexor finally broken, along with Conan’s father’s sword which is still his weapon of choice, by Conan with the Atlanetean steel, after that timely interruption by Valeria’s shade.

Thulsa, standing off from the fight manages to lose not only his best men but his most loyal adherent when he tries to kill the Princess with one of his snake-arrows only for Subotai to stave off the shot. Her faith dashed, the Princess allies with Conan to lead him into the Mountain of Power and help him cut his way through what’s left of Thulsa’s guards. The ending is anticlimactic in a way in lacking any further explosion of action, but it deals a subtler kind of power in stripping Thulsa’s aura of power, rather than offering a last blast of action, whilst also sharpening to a point the story’s similarities to Apocalypse Now and setting the seal on Conan’s journey as he must destroy a wicked priest-king who’s set himself up in a zone of atavistic non-reality, and resist the temptation to supplant him. He sneaks up on the evil sorcerer just as Thulsa is ordering his adherents to go back to the world and unleashed an orgy of self-sacrificial destruction and slaughter, a touch extending the interesting likeness to known cultish dynamics.

Thulsa attempts to stall Conan’s revenge by arresting him with his mesmeric power and appealing to him as his spiritual son, only for Conan to catch himself on the brink of falling under his spell and immediately hacking Thulsa’s head off, tossing it down amongst his followers like so much garbage, finally breaking the grip of awe Thulsa had on him from childhood. Whereupon the cult disbands, tossing their candles into the mystic pool, leaving Conan and the Princess alone. The Princess bows down to him, ready to accept him as replacement god. Conan elects instead to burn down Thulsa’s temple as a final statement not simply in destroying Thulsa’s legacy but in claiming agency for humankind. The final glimpse of Conan anticipates his canonical ascension to kingship in his own right, “destined to wear the jewelled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow,” in his future, a fated end that also signals his eventual shift into the second and most burdensome part of his life journey, something like fatherhood.

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1960s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi, Television

Star Trek: The Cage / Where No Man Has Gone Before / The Man Trap (TV, 1964-66)

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Creator: Gene Roddenberry
Directors: Robert Butler / James Goldstone / Marc Daniels
Screenwriters: Gene Roddenberry / Samuel A. Peeples / George Clayton Johnson

By Roderick Heath

As a boy in Texas in the 1920s and ‘30s, Gene Roddenberry was a voracious fan of the sci-fi and pulp storytelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, stirring the desire to become a writer. After stints as a US Army pilot during World War II and a civilian pilot for Pan Am after, his third crash convinced him to try another profession. He joined the police whilst also pursuing his writing ambitions, blending the two when he landed a job as technical advisor and then writer on the TV show Mr. District Attorney. Roddenberry soon found himself in demand, eventually quitting the cops in 1956 as his career stepped into high gear working on shows including the popular Western series Have Gun – Will Travel, defined by roving heroes and self-contained episodic storylines, and showed equal talent for wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. Some of the quirks of personality and fortune that would define Roddenberry’s professional legacy were already manifesting, particularly frustration in constantly developing and pitching series ideas no-one wanted to produce, and getting sacked from the show Riverboat before even a single episode was made, because of Roddenberry’s fierce objection to the producers’ wish to not feature any black actors on the show despite being set on the Mississippi in the 1860s. On shows he ran or tried to make happen in the early 1960s, Roddenberry met many actors he would later reemploy, including Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, and DeForest Kelley.

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Since the mid-‘50s Roddenberry kicked around variations on the idea of a contained ensemble drama set aboard modes of transport, including an ocean liner and an airship, adding increasingly fantastical elements and the idea of a multi-ethnic ensemble. Taking inspiration from models including the 1956 film Forbidden Planet as well as Smith’s Lensman and Skylark series and the spacefaring stories of A.E. Van Vogt, Roddenberry merged his various concepts into the one project, revolving around the exploratory adventures of a starship. He added the idea of a lead character based on C.S. Forester’s omnicompetent naval hero Horatio Hornblower. The name of the starship, Enterprise, allowed Roddenberry to reference both the early swashbuckling days of the US Navy and the awesome modern aircraft carrier that represented Cold War America’s military and technical might. He called the proposed series Star Trek. Roddenberry gained the support of Lucille Ball, a close friend whose Desilu production company urgently needed a successful show, and took it to various network chieftains, pitching it as “Wagon Train in space” to make it seem more familiar. NBC decided to back a pilot, selecting one of Roddenberry’s scripts, “The Menagerie.”

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Rechristened “The Cage,” the pilot was shot in late 1964, and sported Roddenberry’s lover and future wife Majel Barrett as the starship’s first officer Number One, and Nimoy as a vaguely satanic-looking alien officer named Spock. Jeffrey Hunter, former acting protégé of John Ford whose career had ironically been stymied after playing Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1963), was selected to play the Captain, Christopher Pike. “The Cage” failed to win over executives and test audiences, but unlike so many of Roddenberry’s projects NBC clearly saw potential as they agreed to produce a second pilot, albeit infamously telling Roddenberry to “get rid of the alien with the pointy ears,” and swapping out Hunter’s intense and thoughtful captain for someone with a little more swagger and bravura. For the second pilot the network chose a script Roddenberry had developed with Samuel A. Peeples, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and this time paved the way for the show’s eventual premiere in 1966. Oddly, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” would be the episode screened third: the first broadcast episode proved instead to be “The Man Trap,” written by George Clayton Johnson. The show had many similarities to Irwin Allen’s series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and had a rival in Allen’s next production Lost In Space, which had a more juvenile tone but a similar basis in a spacefaring team encountering character often existing in the blurred zone between sci-fi and outright fantasy. Much like its major rival in TV sci-fi annals, Doctor Who, the show suffered through initial low ratings to surge as a surprising cult hit for the first two years of its three-season run, although the real key to its persistence in pop culture proved to be its popularity in syndication in the 1970s.

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“The Cage,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and “The Man Trap” therefore all present inception points for the series and varying stages of drafting for its eventual, settled template. “The Man Trap” was probably selected to screen first because of its relatively straightforward monster-on-the-loose plot, and also because it sported Kelley as the ship’s Chief Surgeon, Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy, not yet cast on “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and so orientated viewers to the essential line-up more quickly. “The Cage” was eventually, cleverly repurposed for the show on the two-part storyline with the title of “The Menagerie” restored. “The Cage”’s negative was hacked up for use on the show, and the complete version was thought lost. Roddenberry pieced together the full episode combining the colour footage used in “The Menagerie” and a black-and-white workprint, the form in which I, and others, first saw it on video, before a pristine colour print was later recovered. One irony of this is that I think I’ve seen “The Cage” more than any other Star Trek episode, and it stands very close to being my favourite iteration of the entire property, only rivalled by certain episodes of the various series and movie entries like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). “The Cage” stands somewhere between the divergent tones of the original series and its eventual successor Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-93), but also exists in its own peculiar pocket, a place of surreal delights. The re-emergence of the pilot even did much to set the scene for the reboot represented by The Next Generation, a hint this universe could sustain different modes and resonances.

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Many familiar aspects of the show were already in place for “The Cage,” including the Enterprise, the presence of Spock and the general infrastructure of the series’ fictional lore and tech like beaming and phasers, the boldly colourful designs and cinematography, and Alexander Courage’s inimitable theme music. The differences however suggest a whole different version of the show existing in a ghostly parallel dimension to the familiar one. Spock, whilst already invested with his familiar look (although it would be toned down afterwards), isn’t the nerveless rationalist of renown but a rather more youthfully impassioned and demonstrative crewman; the trait of chilly intellectual armour is instead imbued upon Barrett’s Number One. McCoy isn’t yet present, nor is Nichols’ Uhura, James Doohan’s Mr Scott, or George Takei’s Sulu. Indeed, one particularly interesting aspect of “The Cage” is that its emphasis is more on gender diversity than racial, with Pike caught between the diverse potential love interests of Number One, and the younger, more callow Yeoman J.M. Colt (Laurel Goodwin), who would be supplanted in the show proper by Grace Lee Whitney’s rather sexier Yeoman Rand. Roddenberry had also left the door open in his scripts to making Spock and the Chief Surgeon female, although eventually in addition to Nimoy John Hoyt was cast as the doctor, Phillip Boyce.

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Star Trek arrived as a summation and condensation of Roddenberry’s eminently commercial yet singular artistic personality, one reason perhaps why it immediately overshadowed everything else he did: some creative people are destined, and doomed, to arrive at one vital crystallisation of their imagination. Roddenberry’s experience whilst still a very young man as a leader responsible for lives had a deep and obvious impact on his storytelling, and sometimes used the show to explore aspects of his experience, like the episode “Court Martial,” which evokes a crash Roddenberry had during the war and its aftermath. Ironically, Roddenberry would be caught constantly trying to reassert his control over the property and confronted by the way the input of other creative minds would sometimes prove to understand the nature of its popularity better than he did himself, most particularly when Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer rescued the film series it birthed in the 1980s. Roddenberry’s thorough steeping in the kinds of character relations and story basics familiar in TV thoroughly permeated Star Trek, in the panoply of ethnic and job title archetypes, the thematic and narrative similarities to the Westerns he’d worked on, and the basics of how the crew of the Enterprise work and live together.

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The opening images of “The Man Trap,” the very first glimpse of the Star Trek aesthetic TV audiences would actually see, envisions the planet M-113 as a desolate place scarcely trying to look like something other than a set, with Fauvist skies and soils and Ozymandian ruins. It’s a psychological environment of the kind many a Surrealist painter laboured to describe, plucked out of the collective unconscious. A place at once wild and filled with traces of vanished grandeur. This edge of stylisation, of the dreamlike infusing the very texture of the universe, is one of the original show’s most specific qualities and one sadly missing from its many progeny. Aspects of the signature look had already been mooted in “The Cage” where Pike and Spock discover and ponder strange blue flowers that vibrate with alien music, although the landscape was more prosaic with a grey overcast sky and rocky forms like a stretch of the American desert. “Where No Man Has Gone Before” offered visions of the remote Delta-Vega, an outpost of super-technology resembling an oil refinery grafted onto an alien shore.

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The sense of landscape was one area where the show took clear inspiration from Forbidden Planet, which offered similar vistas and the concept of the id made solid and animate. But the emphasis on rugged and far-flung environments was also clearly part of the show’s inheritance from the Western, including John Ford’s iconic use of Monument Valley, a place the show never visited, preferring the more economicaly adjacent Vasquez Rocks. Star Trek hinges upon evoking and inflating to newly fantastical scale the same sense of awed fascination with the raw bones of the American land, the scarps and mesas and jagged geometries of the western deserts, along with the same uneasy mix of celebration in freedom and wealth of space and conflict over the viability of colonialist enterprise, as drove the Western. Often this was interspersed with depictions of deceptively placid Edenic zones where the flowers are beautiful and deadly.

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Roddenberry was already beginning to play the subversive games the show would become famous for. Early in “The Cage” Pike explores his general depletion in spirit and mind from years of commanding the Enterprise with the sympathetic Boyce, who’s rather older than McCoy would be and yet less crusty and combative, instead offering a clear-eyed wisdom more like the characters in The Next Generation. Number One’s stern and heady veneer toys with the familiar figure of the eminently meltable iceberg akin to the female scientists seen in ‘50s sci-fi films like Them! (1954) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), but notably the episode doesn’t undercut her as a figure of command, as Number One has to lead the crew after Pike is kidnapped. The pilot was directed by Robert Butler, an ultra-professional TV director who would go on to an odd and sporadic feature career including making movies for Disney like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1970) and Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978) as well the trashy action-thriller Turbulence (1997). “The Cage” sees the Enterprise, exploring unmapped regions of the galaxy, attracted by a rescue beacon to a desolate planet dubbed Talos. Believing they’re rescuing the crew of the Columbia, a spaceship that vanished years earlier, Pike leads a party down the planet, where they encounter the bedraggled survivors and their makeshift encampment.

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Pike meets the strikingly beautiful Vina (Susan Oliver) amongst their number. She leads him away from the camp on the promise of showing him something interesting, only to deliver him into the arms of a race of bulbous-skulled aliens who knock him out with a gas gun and take him down into the earth via an elevator hidden within a mesa. Pike awakens in a cell with a transparent wall, and the Talosians tell him he’s to remain part of their zoo of fascinating specimens. The Talosians have immense gifts of telepathy, able to plant completely convincing illusions in the minds of others: apart from Vina all the survivors prove to be mirages who vanish once Pike is secured. The Talosian who oversees the zoo, The Keeper (body of Meg Wyllie, voice of Malachi Throne), tries to influence Pike into taking Vina as a mate and accepting his fate to breed and produce a race of servile humans who can help the Talosians, who have become incapable of any kind of practical activity, restore their planet. Attempting to rescue Pike, Number One and Spock set up a powerful energy weapon fuelled by the Enterprise’s engines and try to blast open the Talosian gateway, but seem to fail.

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Pike is carefully characterised as a captain with a sterner, steelier exterior than his eventual successor, but also quickly reveals to Boyce his sense of guilty responsibility for losing several crewmembers on the barbarian planet Rigel 7 and his recent tendency to pensively contemplate quitting his job and pursuing less demanding and more profitable pursuits. This contradicts the one steady constant of his successor James T. Kirk’s character, his complete and unswaying dedication to his ship: Kirk’s angsts, once explored, would rather tend to revolve around the threat of losing the ship, his authority, and his friendly comrades. The episode hinges around Pike’s sense of purpose and energy being restored by having to fight for his freedom and identity. The Talosians force him to re-experience a battle he had on Rigel 7 with a hulking warrior, the Kaylar (Michael Dugan), but this time in defence of Vina, outfitted as a classical damsel in distress. Pike eventually grasps a contradiction, that base and primitive emotions like murderous rage can stymie the Talosians’ psychic powers, and fosters them in himself whilst aware this means stripping away his own civilised veneer. “The Cage,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and “The Man Trap” all share distinct fixations and story elements, particularly with psychic powers and chameleonic, reality-destabilising talents. Dualism and the dangers of deceptive appearances would become obsessive themes for the show, and a great deal of its genre-specific ingenuity would be expended in finding new angles to explore them.

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This also connects to an aspect the Star Trek franchise has long been running away from with a guilty smirk, the pleasurably dirty secret of the original show, as an artwork preoccupied by and deeply riddled with sexuality. Down to its curvy-pointy designs and title fonts, this pervasive erotic suggestion was part of its essential texture as a drama aimed at the protean zone between the theoretical and the psychological. The way Spock was amalgamated with Number One gives a faint credence and explanation for the oft-fetishised erotic arc many viewers often felt existed between Kirk and Spock. In “The Cage” the subtext is scarcely buried, as the Talosians overtly try to appeal to Pike’s libido by reconstructing Vina in various fantasy scenarios as different kinds of woman, from lady fair to be protected, partner in an idyllic Earth marriage, and as a green-skinned dancing girl of the notoriously lusty Orion peoples, performing for Pike in his own private harem. Vina plays along with such manipulations for motives that only become clear at the episode’s end. These scenarios are all drawn from Pike’s experiences or the fantasies and potential lives he confesses to Boyce in their early conversation. Again, “The Cage” delves further and more boldly into such conceptual conceits, offering a plotline that’s also in part a witty meditation on Roddenberry’s lot as a TV maker, sketching scenarios in hunting for appeal to the audience’s needs and desires, the correct balance of elements needed to persuade and enthral. “Almost like secret dreams a bored space captain might have,” one of Pike’s illusory guests in his harem notes, making explicit the idea we’re seeing common idyllic fancies made flesh.

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“The Cage” also deploys the prototypical metatextual and mythopoeic storytelling that would permeate the show, with its myriad references to classical mythology and Shakespearean drama, and the constant games with the characters’ sense of their essential natures and their perceptions of reality in a way that also allowed the actors playing the parts to explore other aspects of their talents. At its best Star Trek seemed to genuinely seek to pattern itself after classical mythology as functioning at once as rigorous storytelling with a hard and immediate sense of form and function, whilst also operating on a level of parable and symbolism, incorporating a dreamlike sense of alien worlds and bodies as charged with qualities the viewer knows and feels with a strange new lustre. This approach would, in the series’ lesser episodes, manifest in a succession of corny political parables (“The Omega Glory”) or clumsily revised myths (“Elaan of Troyius”). “The Cage” also marked the first of many allusions to Plato’s parable of the cave, in regards to the limitations of knowing reality through the senses, and the motives who those who might manipulate others through this disparity. True to the subsequent show’s fame for incorporating social critique, there’s also an implicit self-critical note for Roddenberry and television in general, in the way the Talosians’ basic aim is to make Pike sit still and consume fantasy in order to make it easier to manipulate him into doing the bidding of and fulfilling the needs of controlling masters. Seeds for darker and more explicit variations on such a theme, like John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999). With the added sting that the Talosians themselves have become addled consumers of the fantasies they generate, cut off from action just as surely as their captives.

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“The Cage” reaches its climax as the Talosians forcibly beam down Number One and Yeoman Colt and present them as alternative mates so Pike can take his pick. The Keeper notes their divergent qualities and potentials like a particularly dry car salesman whilst also simply forcing Pike to recognise the way his mind has, consciously or not, always cast a sexually assessing eye over his female crewmembers, and vice versa. This move by the Talosians proves their downfall however, as the women were brought down with their phasers, and whilst these seemed to do no damage the Keeper tries to retrieve the discarded weapons. This gives Pike a chance to take him captive, and he threatens to throttle him if he doesn’t release them. The dispelling of imposed illusion allows the captives to see the actual, devastating damage their weaponry made upon the Talosian infrastructure. But Pike is also forced to see Vina in her true physical state: terribly injured when the Columbia crashed, she was rescued and repaired by the Talosians but at the time they had no understanding of what a human should look like, leaving her a twisted and haggard travesty, and only the Talosians’ abilities to conceal this gave her any chance of finding companionship. This forlorn punchline is amplified by the Talosians themselves, recognising that with the humans proving too intransigent to serve, they’ve lost their last chance to save their species. The episode does leave off with a grace note as the Talosians recreate Pike in illusory form to give Vina company.

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The revised version of the storyline seen in “The Menagerie” offered the events of “The Cage” as a flashback set 13 years in the past, with a different actor cast as the now-disfigured and paralysed Pike for the present-tense scenes. “The Menagerie” had Spock commit mutiny for the sake of honouring his old commander, taking him to Talos so he can live with Vina and believe himself restored to his unbroken self, a surprisingly clever bit of repurposing even if it dispelled much of “The Cage”’s surreal intensity. The image of Vina as the Orion dancing girl became one of show’s most iconic images, often featured in the end credits of episodes, encapsulating the show’s mystique on many levels. For the second pilot shot nearly a year after “The Cage,” Roddenberry had to find a new lead as Hunter had dropped out. Eventually, the Canadian former Stratford Festival alumnus turned minor Hollywood star William Shatner was cast as Captain James Kirk, whose middle initial, glimpsed upon a conjured tombstone, is given in the episode as R. rather than the eventual T. Far from being introduced at a low point or riven with doubts and guilt like Pike, Kirk arrives as the starship captain entering his prime, confident, quick in mind and body, the perfect man of action who’s also the rare man of intellectual poise. Other essential roles and performers were added, including singer and actress Nichols as Uhura, the communications officer, James Doohan as chief engineer Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott, and George Takei as Sulu, initially a science officer but later recast as the ship’s helmsman.

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“Where No Man Has Gone Before” and other early series episodes revolve most fixatedly upon Shatner as Kirk, dominating the rest of the cast. Eventually the essential relationship of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy would form, with Spock representing reason and McCoy instinctive humanism, and Kirk constantly trying to balance the two. This shift was informed in part by the impact made upon the showrunners by the way many female viewers surprised them by preferring Spock as the alluringly cool and thoughtful heartthrob, a conspicous contrast to the type of James Bond-inspired man’s man so common in pop culture at the time, although the potential appeal of Spock was already plainly in the show’s thoughts in the earliest episodes. A certain caricature of Kirk has emerged in popular lore as a brash and chauvinistic he-man, pushed hard by J.J. Abrams’ 2009 cinematic reboot. The caricature sadly excises Kirk’s other, more vital and nuanced traits, and even his image as a womaniser neglects the edge of frustration and pathos, even tragedy that so often attached to his romances. To be fair, Kirk as a character often suffered from the way the show would make him into whatever any given episode’s writer needed, sometimes presenting a nuanced philosopher-king and at other times a reactionary cold warrior. Eventually some of the later films, particularly when Nicholas Meyer was writing him in The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), would unify his facets successfully.

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Shatner’s presence as Kirk also represented a compromise between Roddenberry and network executives as to just what the hero of the show should be, schism written into his very being. For the time being Shatner had to impose unity upon the character, developing Kirk’s edge of almost self-mocking humour alongside his edge of hard will and imperious ego, mercurial wit of mind and body invested in his signature, wryly challenging smile, signalling his refusal to take things too seriously, a mechanism that allows him to function in situations that might crush others. Shatner matched his voluble physicality to his inimitable speaking style with its elastic, often sprinting cadences and juddering emphases, to describe the way Kirk has mastered the difficult art of making his masculine vigour and the racing motor of his intellect work in concert. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before” he’s contrasted by a similar type, Gary Lockwood’s Gary Mitchell, serving as the Enterprise’s helmsman. Their eventual conflict has an aspect of doppelgangers clashing, Mitchell symbolising what might result if the side of Kirk that allows him to function as a commander, his sense of innate exceptionalism in authority, was ever encouraged to overwhelm the rest of his character. And, by extension, delivering the same lesson to the audience, all presumed to see themselves to some degree or other in Kirk.

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Despite his frequent frustration with Shatner’s Kirk, the character certainly engaged Roddenberry’s pervasive interest in what made for an ideal leader figure, a notion he must surely have been contemplating since being pushed into such a role as a young man and then serving in institutions tasked with service and discipline, making friction against the side of his personality concerned with humanitarian and egalitarian ideals. The show managed to offer reflection on the conceptual tension in the episode “The Galileo Seven” where Spock, obliged to take command when he and other crew crash land on a strange planet, finds himself bewildered when he does everything right according to his sense of logic and expedience only to find the other crew detest him for his tone-deafness to their emotions, whereas they trust Kirk implicitly. In the same way, Kirk was required to help get the audience invested however much he cut against the grain of Roddenberry’s ideals. The bulk of representatives of the Federation and Starfleet hierarchies apart from the Enterprise crew are portrayed as pompous and oblivious blowhards through the original series, shading the show’s mythologised utopian streak in a manner that might well have been informed by Roddenberry’s personal observations about rank, as well reflecting Roddenberry and team’s stormy relationship with their often aggressively bemused network bosses.

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“Where No Man Has Gone Before” counters Butler’s stark and dreamy approach with more forceful and flashy handling from James Goldstone, who go on to have a feature film-directing career dotted with some underregarded movies like Winning (1969) and Rollercoaster (1977), and strong guest star support from Lockwood and Sally Kellerman. The episode’s title proved so keen in describing the essence of the proposed show it was quickly incorporated into Kirk’s opening narration. Despite the crew’s nominal assignment on a five year exploratory mission to “strange new worlds” and seek out “new life and new civilizations,” the Enterprise would nonetheless often be found performing more prosaic tasks in well-travelled areas. “Where No Man Has Gone Before” does at least start with the Enterprise preparing for a daring tilt at the edges of the known, whilst also repeating “The Cage”’s gambit as the ship picks up a signal leading to the wreckage of a long-lost ship, this time the USS Valiant, and recover what proves to be an ejected flight recorder. The first moments of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” offer immediate definition of Kirk and Spock’s divergent yet magnetised personalities as they’re glimpsed playing three-dimensional chess, kicking off a running joke in the show where Kirk always beats Spock at the game despite the latter’s vast intellectual prowess, through Kirk’s illogical tactical genius. Joining them on the bridge as an alert is called are the Chief Surgeon Dr Mark Piper (Paul Fix) and shipboard Psychiatrist Dr Elizabeth Dehner (Kellerman).

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Spock delves into the recovered record of the Valiant’s end and through garbled passages discerns the ship was driven beyond the galaxy’s edge. There it struck a powerful energy field that killed several crew and left one strangely affected. The Valiant’s ultimate destruction seems linked to enigmatic requests for information about ESP abilities the Captain made to the ship’s computer, before the Captain made the ship self-destruct. Deciding to trace the Valiant’s path in the hope of finding more wreckage, they encounter the same energy field at the galactic frontier. The barrier almost fries the Enterprise and Mitchell and Dehner are both struck down by shocks, seemingly correlated with the degree of latent ESP ability both have been measured in, with Mitchell the most affected, left with a bizarre silver glaze over his eyes. Taken to the sick bay and watched over by Piper, Mitchell seems otherwise unharmed and reveals rapidly growing psychic abilities, allowing him to consume the ship’s computer files at speed and revealing telekinetic power too. Eventually it becomes clear Mitchell is evolving into something very powerful and dangerous, and in a desperate attempt to keep him from taking over or destroying the ship Kirk spirits him to Delta-Vega, a planet supporting an automated lithium refinery, to maroon him. Dehner also develops the silver eyes and incredible power, and aids Mitchell in freeing himself.

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“Where No Man Has Gone Before” mediates the tones of “The Cage” and the settled show: Shatner-as-Kirk retains some of Pike’s restraint and pensiveness, although by the episode’s end he’s more thoroughly and specifically designated as an action hero. Where “The Cage” allowed Pike to be identified in a sardonic manner with tiger-in-a-cage intensity and thwarted strength, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” sees Kirk taking on the nascent superman in a fistfight regardless of the long odds. Spock is now firmly defined by his devotion to logic, but not yet stoic dispassion. The climax, in which Kirk battles Mitchell who’s now powerful enough to refashion pockets of reality, sees the rogue mutant conjure up a grave for Kirk complete with carved tombstone, a semi-surreal touch of a brand the show would regularly invoke, in a universe filled with incongruous sights in far-flung surrounds. The weird sexuality likewise is contoured into the direct flow of plot. Mitchell and Dehner, initially defined by gendered polarity – he’s aggressively flirtatious, she’s haughty and heady so Mitchell dismisses Dehner as a “walking freezer unit” – are soon united in new, exceptional identity, their glazed silver eyes signifying a perverse bond in their post-human state. That bond is ultimately ruptured when Kirk makes desperate appeal to Dehner as he battles Mitchell: Dehner aids him in attacking Mitchell and briefly nullifying his powers, at the cost of her own life.

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“Where No Man Has Gone Before” maintains a muscular, cinematic force and it’s easy to see why it, rather than “The Cage”, ultimately provided the right blueprint when it came to getting Star Trek up and running. Though not nearly as layered and intriguing, it fulfils the necessary task of presenting this particular wing of sci-fi dreaming as one defined by potent, active characters and forces representing a dialogue between stolid settlement and wild possibility, fantastical yet familiar-feeling in many basic aspects. Goldstone taps the image of the silver-eyed Mitchell for moments of creepy punctuation, as in a fade-to-black that leaves only the eyes glowing, and when he looks into a security camera and Kirk realises he is looking back at him through the camera. Mitchell was the perfect antagonist to lay down this blueprint as a normal man stricken with godlike talents, underlining the emotional meaning not only in Kirk having to kill him but in presenting vast new stages of drama through a human-sized conduit.

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Lockwood and Kellerman are valuable presences in their one-off roles, clearly a cut above the usual run of TV supporting actor of the day, and Lockwood’s presence gives it an incidental connection to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film that would take up aspects of Star Trek’s inquisitive reach and push further. Spock would be the singular archetype the show invented rather than augmented for pop culture, but he’s still an evolving and relatively muted figure, perhaps partly because Roddenberry had gone out on a limb to keep him in the series. Nimoy himself was still trying to nail down his characterisation, his voice pitched about a half-octave higher than the inimitable monotonous drawl he would develop. Spock nonetheless is already serving his chief function as the character who offers piercingly unblinkered analysis to Kirk, as when he tells him in no uncertain terms he must either maroon Mitchell or kill him whilst he still can. And yet the very end of the episode sees him admit to Kirk that he too feels a sense of a pathos at Mitchell’s destruction, a first sign that Spock’s surface tension hides undercurrents running deep and fast. Part of the legend of Star Trek revolves around Shatner and Nimoy’s rivalry: supposedly no less a personage than Isaac Asimov advised Roddenberry to overcome Shatner and Nimoy’s ego duels by making their onscreen characters inseparable.

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“The Man Trap” iterates a plot the show would return to regularly, most notably in “The Devil on the Dark.” That episode would take the show’s nascent humanist spirit further in presenting the lurking monstrosity as entirely misunderstood, whereas in “The Man Trap” the alien creature is a more straightforward threat, although still voted a degree of sympathy as a forlorn survivor of a decimated species driven by its predatory needs, much like the Talosians. The theme of besiegement by an alien monster in “The Man Trap” echoes Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951), and indeed restores the idea of a shapeshifting monster Nyby and Hawks excised in adapting John W. Campbell’s story. But Roddenberry and his team were trying to philosophically and practically reconcile that film’s propelling contemplation of prudently vigorous militarism in conflict with coldly inquisitive science. As he did for the two pilots and most of the first season, Courage wrote the incidental music, and his spare, sonorous, Bernard Herrmann-like scoring helps invest “The Man Trap” with eerie beauty, although Roddenberry didn’t like it, one of the first signs the show’s wellspring didn’t entirely grasp what made it good.

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Appropriate to the plucked-from-the-Id aesthetic, the monster in “The Man Trap” is a sci-fi spin on the incubus/succubus figure, a creature that takes on the appearance of former lovers and friends to entice those it meets, plundering the libidinous and needy backwaters of the heroes’ psyches for its own purposes. Again, like many episodes subsequent, “The Man Trap” establishes the common refrain of exploring the lead characters’ emotional baggage and busy yet always foiled love lives, here most particularly in the case of McCoy, who sees the creature as Nancy (Jeanne Bal), an old flame who married the archaeologist Professor Crater (Alfred Ryder). The Enterprise is performing a routine visit to check up on the couple as they document a long-dead civilisation, and Kirk, McCoy, and a redshirt crewman, Darnell (Michael Zaslow), beam down for that purpose. McCoy sees Nancy as he remembers her, whilst appearing to Kirk as grey-haired and weathered as he less sentimentally expects, and to Darnell as someone else entirely, a sex kitten he met on shore leave. When Darnell goes off with the creature, he vanishes, and his crewmates later find his body, and medical analysis reveals he’s been entirely drained of salt. Other crewmen die in the same manner, and ‘Nancy’ takes on the form of one of her victims, Green (Bruce Watson), in order to be beamed up onto the Enterprise where pickings are plentiful. Uhura sees the creature as a fellow black crewmate who almost gets hold of her.

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“The Man Trap” therefore hinges on the same conceit as “The Cage” in externalising the characters’ inner angsts and fantasy lives through the device of role-playing. The note of forlorn emotionalism is amplified as Kirk and Spock eventually uncover the truth, that the real Nancy was killed by the creature years before and the vampire has maintained a sickly symbiotic relationship with Crater. He’s kept it alive with his encampment’s stock of salt whilst it maintains Nancy’s appearance to please him. Crater’s remnant, lingering affection even for the mere semblance of Nancy is given further weight by his awareness as a scientist that the creature is the last survivor of the toppled civilisation he’s been studying, a parasitic monster that’s also pitiful. The creature stirs a similar emotion of heedless protectiveness in McCoy, one that almost prevents him from saving Kirk’s life in the climax as the creature turns on the Captain. “The Man Trap” establishes McCoy as a man so driven by his sense of humanity as a palpable thing that it can sometimes cloud his judgement, to the equal and opposite degree to which Spock would so often strike him as psychopathically detached. Crater and ‘Nancy’’s relationship reaches an inevitable end as the scientist is killed by the increasingly desperate creature, although the episode foils the potential tragic punch by having this occur off-screen.

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When Kirk tries to convince McCoy that ‘Nancy’ is using him the creature mesmerises the Captain, Spock tries to intervene, making a brutal assault on the creature which McCoy sees only as violence perpetrated on Nancy until the creature easily swats the Vulcan aside. But McCoy still can’t bring himself to gun down the creature until Kirk starts screaming as the creature begins to drain him. “The Man Trap”’s director Marc Daniels would handle many episodes of the series with concerted energy, including perhaps the most famous episode, “Space Seed,” which would sport the first appearance of Ricardo Montalban’s nefarious supervillain Khan. The most intriguing aspect of these first three efforts at defining Star Trek is observing how much room they left to manoeuvre for the series, dramatically speaking, and the first half of the show’s first season, whilst erratic in quality, offered various characters and relationships to be enlarged upon at leisure. The second screened episode, “Charlie X”, starts with a memorably odd musical sequence in which Uhura improvises a song teasing Spock, as he plucks his Vulcan lyre, for his weirdly enticing and provocative coldness.

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Part of Star Trek’s odd afterlife as a series ultimately lies in the way it never quite lived up to such promise, even though even at its silliest and campiest it was never less than highly entertaining. “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” have gravitas and a relative lack of the formulaic aspects that would both define the show in its halcyon days and ultimately retard its growth. One example of this would be the way the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate became central, resulting in most of the other characters being left sidelined beyond performing their stalwart crew functions. Famous as they rightfully are for offering multicultural role-models, figures like Uhura and Sulu nonetheless finished up largely wasted for great stretches. Meanwhile, despite the show’s seemingly limitless purview, a certain repetitiveness of theme and story set in, particularly once the show’s budget was cut and the scope reduced to battles against intruding forces on the Enterprise, and the episodic format prevented any appropriate sense of the characters evolving along with their universe. This proved the ultimate foil for the original Star Trek, one that finally helped kill it when it should have been entering its prime, but also informed the eventual revival and great success of a franchise. Today, it seems, the world has caught up with what Roddenberry originally offered. The most recent iteration of Star Trek, Discovery, has revisited “The Cage” and a series revolving around Pike, Spock, and Number One and their adventures together has been announced. Now there’s a cosmic irony even Spock might offer a smile for.

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1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Fantasy, Scifi

Idaho Transfer (1973)

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Director: Peter Fonda
Screenwriter: Thomas Matthiesen

This essay is offered as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2020, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and freely available online

By Roderick Heath

Peter Fonda famously left John Lennon uneasy but also creatively stirred when, as the young actor dropped LSD with the Beatle and his bandmate George Harrison, he recounted a childhood accident when he almost fatally shot himself in the stomach, reporting “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Lennon was inspired to write his song “She Said” sporting his riposte to the utterer, “It’s making me feel like I’ve never been born.” Fonda would for his part later try, when he became a film director, to articulate his enigmatic report from the fringes of existence. Fonda, son of movie legend Henry Fonda, found himself a figure strongly associated with the emerging counterculture vanguard around Los Angeles, an association that would briefly make him a major cultural figure. After making a mark in a small role as a young recruit confronted by the ugliness of life in Carl Foreman’s antiwar epic The Victors (1963), Fonda’s embrace of the hip scene in Hollywood saw his rise to conventional stardom frustrated, but he gained starring roles with Roger Corman in cheap and spurious but fascinating attempts to court a youth audience with tales of the new bohemia like The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967).

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Fonda accepted a sense of mission in trying to convey a more authentic sense of the zeitgeist in working with his friend and fellow actor Dennis Hopper on a project that eventually became Easy Rider (1969). Fonda and Hopper’s divergent sensibilities were thrown into sharp contrast in making the project a reality even as they joined in fertile collaboration. Fonda’s ambitious and thoughtful approach saw him turn to satirical writer Terry Southern to co-write the film with an eye to making an epic portrait of assailed Americana, but Hopper would later claim it Fonda and Southern took too long and he finished up writing most of the film himself. Hopper was generally accepted as the film’s auteur and engine for its rugged, improvisatory, freewheeling artistry. Hopper and Fonda’s quarrel over both the credit and profits for the film would spoil their relationship for decades, but Fonda did get a crack at directing in his own right on the back of Easy Rider’s industry-jarring success, whilst Hopper rolled on towards glorious disaster with The Last Movie (1971).

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Fonda eventually directed three films, starting with 1971’s The Hired Hand and ending with 1978’s Wanda Nevada, with Idaho Transfer in between, a film penned by writer Thomas Matthiesen, his one and only screenplay. All three of Fonda’s films can be described, in their fashion, as oddball twists on the folklore of the Western film his father had been so strongly associated with, and are highlighted by their dry, sauntering, deeply eccentric sense of style. Whilst Fonda’s acting career was going more commercial at the time as he appeared in a number of rubber-burning action movies, Fonda’s films as director were more resolutely eccentric and none were box office successes, although The Hired Hand, with its trancelike and fatalistic evocation of the Old West landscape as a place of brutal violence and individuals afflicted with blurred identity, has slowly gathered a potent cult following as an emblematic “Acid Western.” Wanda Nevada tried to court some of the popularity of Paper Moon (1973) in transferring the theme of a roguish man and an apt young female pupil to an earlier period setting. Idaho Transfer, coming between, saw Fonda tackling an environmental theme close to his heart. Produced independently on a very low budget, Idaho Transfer never had a chance of gaining significant attention, as the distributor who took up his project folded just as the film was due to be released, leaving it scarcely screened. Fonda later regained the rights and let the film pass into the public domain, and shot a brief prologue in which he appeared extolling his concerns.

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Idaho Transfer manages a rare trick, in seeming both a pure-sprung product of its time but also still awaiting its moment, trying to nail down an ever-elusive undercurrent of the modern psyche. Fonda’s evocative palette here was applied to a science fiction parable. At the outset two young researchers, Isa Braden (Caroline Hildebrand) and Cleve (Joe Newman), are glimpsed capturing snakes and studying them amidst the craggy, sunstruck reaches of the Craters of the Moon National Monument, a field of lava forms in rural Idaho. Isa climbs down through a metal door set in the ground, into a small chamber buried in the lava, and after stripping off most of her clothes and making adjustments to a control panel, is transposed into another, larger, brighter room: Isa has just travelled back in time to her present day. She is the daughter of scientist Dr George Braden (Ted D’Arms), who’s made an unexpected, and very secret, breakthrough in time travel whilst officially working on a government-funded project researching matter teleportation. Her father has assembled a team of intellectually advanced young scientists and assistants to travel through time, or “transfer” as they call it, to a point 56 years in the future, where for some reason all signs of functioning civilisation in the vicinity have vanished. Nearby towns are deserted and no broadcasts are detectable. The project team has inferred some cataclysmic event has occurred in the meantime.

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Isa is assigned to bring her sister Karen (Kelley Bohanon) into the team, and despite her father’s instructions to tell Karen everything, she avoids explaining about the potentially debilitating health effects of transferring, which are so severe the team’s doctor Lewis (Fred Seagraves) thinks it would be fatal for anyone over twenty years old, as it causes haemorrhaging in the kidneys. Karen has just spent a spell in a mental hospital recovering from an unstated crisis, and casually tells her sister she lost her virginity when she was raped by a fellow patient. Isa first takes Karen out to the lava fields in the present, to get her familiar with the environment, and they encounter some footloose hippies heading to a music festival. Karen then takes Isa forward in a transfer whilst instructing her in how to operate the machinery. In the future Isa suffers a fall into a crevice and seems badly injured, so Karen quickly brings her back to the present, but can’t get help before Isa dies, apparently not from the fall but from transferring too many times. When the authorities discover what’s been going on at the project a short time later, they move to shut it down and round up all of the personnel, but a number of the young people follow a prearranged plan to gather supplies and equipment and transfer en masse to the future.

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Despite being the son of a major movie star, Fonda’s childhood background had been anything but idyllic. His father Henry was remarkably ill-starred in his marital life, compounded by his problems with private emotional expression which Peter in particular would contend with until his father was on his deathbed. Peter and his sister Jane’s mother Frances Ford Seymour had committed suicide whilst in a psychiatric hospital after suffering from severe depression, and Peter’s near-fatal accident had occurred a year later. Peter’s recourse to both the bohemian drug culture and artistic creation might well have had an aspect of therapeutic necessity, and by and large seemed to have worked. The Hired Hand and Idaho Transfer are closely linked in their mood of blasted and alien persistence and fragmented time, and resemble an interior portrait of life as experience through a depressive lens, with the latter film engaging those aspects not just on a stylistic level but also in its storyline. “I’m hip to time,” his character Captain America famously noted in Easy Rider, and here he shows us what he meant, knowing that the passage of the ages has no substance without the limitations of human perception to know it.

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The needling signs of personal relevance to Fonda are borne out in the traits Karen shares with his mother, the film an inferring study of a state of mind, portraying the space within Karen’s head in confronting a world of anxiety about what kind of future is possible in the wake of psychological collapse and assault, and avatar for a flailing youth movement confronted by a great existential brick wall: where to next, and is there any next anyway? “I used to have nightmares that looked like this,” Karen says as she surveys the lava fields in the post-apocalyptic future, “They were beautiful nightmares.” This line encapsulates the whole film and the spirit it tries to animate. Idaho Transfer is on one level an evocative, semi-abstract portrait of people in a setting, following on from Easy Rider and The Hired Hand as experiential engagements with the American landscape, and a negative space portrait of post-human witnessing as cinematographer Bruce Logan’s camera gazes upon the wastes of Idaho with an atavistic sense of locale. The schism between those who can withstand the transfer and those who can’t, along a firm boundary between the youthful and the mature, suggests at once a metaphor for generation gaps and also for the state of youth itself, able to weather certain terrible blows and recover more easily only to later realise the wearing consequences to soul as well as body.

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Idaho Transfer’s low budget manifests in its Spartan production values and visuals, but Fonda nimbly makes these lacks part of the stark aesthetic, which lacks the overtly hallucinatory interludes of The Hired Hand, but maintains the same dreamlike aura and mood of punch-drunk dislocation as that film and portions of Easy Rider. The opening shots resemble a public TV documentary about field biologists, but the naturalistic approach helps bolster Fonda’s evocation of spacy dislocation infested by creeping dread. Fonda contrasts the bland institutional space of the transfer project headquarters, a warren of white walls, glaring lighting, and functional machinery, where all sign of nature has been exiled save people themselves, and the vistas of the Idaho scenery, a space where no sign of civilisation has taken hold save for the metallic oblong forms of the transfer units fixed in the lava. Both environs seem like places where people persist more as memories than beings, the young folk already living in a zone that shrugs them off in disinterest well before they reach the future. Isa and Karen’s encounter with the hippie travellers offers a brief moment of solidarity and cheer, but later after heading into the future, Karen contemplates their fate. Isa responds duly, “The hitchhikers? Try not to think of them. They don’t matter anymore.” Even before any cataclysm has occurred, the world is suddenly now full of ghosts who don’t know they’re dead.

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Although lacking equivalent, fastidious technique, Fonda’s efforts here resemble at points Werner Herzog’s stringent attempts to convey a similar sensibility in films like Heart of Glass (1976) and Where The Green Ants Dream (1984) with their days-of-future-past evocations and bewildered sense of humans trapped on the Earth, and anticipate where Andrei Tarkovsky would head with Stalker (1979), to which Idaho Transfer bears a strong resemblance in both mood and motifs, evoking concepts just as large with means just as sparing. Idaho Transfer also certainly fits in amongst the sprawl of films released in the early 1970s regarding apocalyptic angst, informed by a counterculture-inspired concern for ecology and nuclear war, ranks including the likes of No Blade of Grass (1970), The Omega Man, Zero Population Growth, THX-1138 (all 1971), Silent Running (1972), and Soylent Green (1973). Idaho Transfer is however quite distinct from them except perhaps THX-1138, another, more forcefully crafted but no less idiosyncratic by-product of early New Wave Hollywood potential and effort to mate art-house aesthetics with sci-fi. Idaho Transfer avoids the usual pretext apocalyptic sci-fi narratives, to set up action-thriller stories except for brief spasms late in the movie, presenting instead a work of tensile poeticism that echoes today more in works like those of Kelly Reichardt and later Terrence Malick.

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Aspects of the story have an intriguingly prototypical aspect in terms of some sci-fi ideas nonetheless. The specific details of the transferees having to remove all metal objects and much of their clothes in order to travel without risk are very similar to those detailed in The Terminator (1984) over a decade later, and like that film Idaho Transfer rejects a jaunty view of time travel in favour of one that almost conceives of it as close to a form of death and rebirth, or perhaps more like a Caesarean section, sliced out of one reality and dumped in another. The ending is offered chiefly as a lacerating metaphor, but also lays seeds for a driving idea of The Matrix (1999), that of bioenergy tapped as fuel as a cynical answer to resource shortage. Cleverly conveying reality-twisting with the absolute minimum of resources, Fonda illustrates his central sci-fi conceit with techniques that can scarcely be called special effects, the transfer process itself consisting merely of sped-up and stroboscopic footage of passengers moving between locales and time zones. The Craters of the Moon look entirely the same in the two time periods, a natural zone oblivious to the height and passing of the human civilisation that has claimed the continent around it.

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Transferring has a certain likeness to taking hallucinogens as a means of escaping a purely liminal sense of existence (and also bears a certain puckish resemblance to the motorcycle riding of Easy Rider). Isa’s surprising death early in a film she seems to be the main protagonist of sees her sister confronted by the sight of her lifeless form with face pressed in a pool of her own vomit, a harsh vision of the physical cost of transferring and also a touch that suggests Fonda here is meditating on the downside of the drug culture and the impact of addiction. Much as Easy Rider revised the Western movie template as an inverted course through a succession of defeated dreams and The Hired Hand offered the usually celebrated wanderers of Western folklore as interchangeable and inept in creating true civilisation in terms of honouring their human obligations, Idaho Transfer literally portrays decolonisation. Fonda’s pantheistic surveys of the landscape invoke the power of the natural world to persist and shrug humanity off like an insect pest. Fonda sharply disturbs the placid ambience when the young team members are obliged to spring into action and execute the planned group transfer as government authorities visit the installation and it seems the political situation out in the world is deteriorating swiftly: Fonda films their hurried preparations for departure in lunging hand-held camerawork, the scramble for survival illustrated although the narrative eventually reveals it to be essentially pointless.

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A couple of adults including Lewis make the transfer too despite the risks. The escapees take some comfort in knowing that despite of the crackdown they might still be able to return for a time as the power supply to the transfer machinery can’t be easily cut off, but some, like Leslie (Dale Hopkins), quickly begin feeling troubled at the thought of being marooned. When the units stop working, one team member says it’s only a temporary glitch. Karen surreptitiously returns to the past and fruitlessly tries to contact her father, and then collects supplies whilst dodging security patrols. Ronald (Kevin Hearst), one of the boys on the team, transfers back to fetch her, literally dragging her away leaving dropped toilet rolls in her wake, a deft piece of physical comedy. One aspect of Idaho Transfer it’s been much-criticised for is the acting by the mostly green and nonprofessional cast, and indeed quite a few of them are wooden. But the rough, blowsy performing style largely helps the overall air of verisimilitude, and the basic theme of people who are scarcely adults trying to negotiate a forbidding future, callow and jagged, even clumsy in their emotional expressions. Karen is inducted into a crew of bright young nerds who turn a stoically observant and scientific eye on their circumstances.

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Bohanon, whilst clearly raw, nonetheless proves a striking lead, called upon to progress from a gangly and pallid survivor of troubled youth to a sturdy-looking prototype for a James Cameron action heroine in her physicality, even as her psyche matures far more spasmodically. Casting Keith Carradine, the only member of the cast to go on to a notable career, as team member Arthur signals a plain sense of personal continuity, as Fonda’s fellow progeny of Hollywood royalty, son of his father’s co-star in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Nor does the similarity feel accidental. The early scenes of Ford’s film set amidst Dustbowl squalor and ruination wove a similar mood to what Fonda chases here, one of haunted isolation and desolated place, and in Idaho Transfer plays like Fonda’s spiritual sequel. Another aspect of Idaho Transfer’s unique texture is the score, provided by Greenwich Village folk scene stalwart and regular Bob Dylan collaborator Bruce Langhorne, who had also provided The Hired Hand’s music. The way Fonda shoots scenery with Langhorne’s music on the soundtrack establishes a wistful sensibility contrasted with the increasingly grim sense of entrapment gripping the humans at roam in that scenery, great natural beauty and lustre confronting the characters with their own doomed lot rather than elevating as in the Hudson Valley School painting tradition, that awed yet imperial sensibility in regarding the beneficence of the land, which Fonda evokes and disrupts.

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The team eventually decide to try heading for Portland, Oregon, with the bulk of the party under the leadership of Cleve travelling down to and along the Snake River whilst Karen and Ronald are assigned to scout out an overland route and meet up with the rest of the party further along the river. Arthur, Leslie, and another girl who’s hurt her leg, Jennifer (Meredith Hull), are left behind to tend the base camp. As they tramp across the country, Karen prods the phlegmatic Ronald to become her lover, and though Ronald at first plays brusquely and professionally disinterested in Karen’s overtures, she eventually has her way with him. Later she confesses she thinks she’s pregnant to Arthur, news Ronald seems to take with equanimity. Karen tries to hold on to fragments of hope and delight, from the thought of having a baby to delighting in an improvised woven ring someone gives her, and begins to contemplate the gender politics of a new world: “I suppose it doesn’t matter since we have a fresh start now…Call the boys girls’ names and the girls boys’ names.” Lewis separates from the larger party as his kidneys start to haemorrhage and seeks a peaceful, solitary end. When Ronald and Karen spot a train parked and rusting on a railway line, Ronald goes to check it out, and later reports the wreck is crammed with bodies wrapped in plastic bags within, which he theorises were being taken from a coastal city to a dumping point inland when the same deadly force overwhelmed the drivers.

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In this section, the narrative most clearly becomes a tragicomic lampoon of the basic proposition of the Western, the fumbling anti-pioneers tramping a path through the wilds, even encountering the dead of a massacre like many a Western hero, albeit with the enemy a negation: westward the course of empire unravels. Fonda never specifies exactly what’s caused the catastrophe, which could be nuclear conflict but seems more like biological warfare. Finally Ronald and Karen reach the river and meet up with the other team, and find they’ve brought along a girl they’ve named Anne (Kim Casper), one of a community of third-generation survivors they encountered. In a motif reminiscent of Planet of the Apes (1968), the human survivors all seem to be deaf and developmentally disabled to some degree through mutation, and yet, as one team member notes, they seem incredibly happy, and another says they’re the most compassionate people he’s ever met. Observing that, apart from hearing loss and slight motor retardation, Anne seems more or less normal, the team considers the possibility of finding an equally high-functioning male and mating them. Karen wryly suggests the men of the team should impregnate her instead for a better result, and then tells them she thinks she’s pregnant. The team drop on her a bleak fact Lewis informed them about and which Ronald didn’t have the heart to tell her: the transfer renders anyone who does it sterile, and the symptoms of pregnancy she’s experiencing are most likely psychosomatic.

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Again Idaho Transfer pivots into a psychological portrait where the exterior developments are extensions of Karen’s damaged headspace, as this revelation brutally dashes not just Karen’s emotional recompense but all hope the team might form the core of a new civilisation: they too have become just more ghosts haunting the land. Ronald’s attitude had already signalled a disdain bordering on anti-natalism when he answers Karen’s comment, “I’m a woman, you know,” as she confesses broody emotions with, “That gives you the right to have a bunch of kids?” By way of comforting her, he tells her, “Perpetuation and all the crap that goes with it is just a big hoax anyway,” and advises her to simply enjoy her own existence before letting it all fade out. This attitude to life is evoked as Fonda notes his characters skimming stones across water with an almost artistic sense of technique, trying to launch further and more gracefully each time but always destined to sink into dark. Such a forlorn and astringent attitude feels of a unit with Fonda’s own efforts to be at once unsentimental and open to experience as its own meaning, if not entirely a personal statement, as he also clearly empathises with Karen as the sensate antithesis to such taciturn logic, trying to maintain against all fact some sense of a living purpose, the character who feels the essential meaning of things rather than numbing them with intellectualisms.

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Karen decides to separate from the team, leaving early in the morning and hiking back the way she came to the base camp, hoping to see Arthur again and perhaps return to the past. When she does reach the base, she finds Jennifer’s rotting corpse in a crevice, whilst Arthur’s savaged body lies in one of the transfer units. Karen is launched upon by Leslie, who’s gone violently insane and tries to bash Karen’s brains out on the lava, but Karen manages to protect herself with her arm just enough. Whilst Leslie goes after Karen’s dropped knife, Karen dashes into one of the transfer units, and sits within bleeding and traumatised, listening as Leslie beats a stone on the hatch and crows that the units still aren’t working. Karen hears a buzz emitting from the machinery and tries it, successfully transferring to the past. She materialises before an utterly bewildered security guard, desperately explaining she wants to transfer back to a point earlier in time when she can stop Arthur and Jennifer’s killing, to the guard’s utter incomprehension and alarm. Karen frantically tries to reset the transfer machine whilst soldiers mass outside the chamber. Karen arrives back in the future but is soon confronted by evidence she’s gone much further than the earlier transfers, finding the transfer units in ruins and the camp debris old and corroded, the land now in bitter winter.

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Fonda saves his last, bitterest, bleakest touch for the very end as Karen sees what strikes her as a sign of civilisation and salvation, a car cruising along one of the ancient roads. She gropes her way to the roadside as Fonda offers flash cuts to her experiences throughout, as if her substance is breaking down. The car’s driver (Michael Kriss) stops, picks her up, and carries her back to the vehicle. Instead of putting her inside, he opens the boot, and pushes her: as the trunk hatch closes, we hear Karen’s bloodcurdling scream. The driver gets back into the car and drives off with his wife (Erica Joeres) and young daughter (Vicki Dietrich), and their dialogue makes it plain that these can-do people of the future have started using other people as an energy source. The daughter says she doesn’t think Karen was “one of them,” although the father assures her she was. The suggestion here seems to be that these “normal” people, who resemble a cold-blooded caricature of an ideal nuclear (post-nuclear?) family have been using the mutated survivors as biofuel. The unaffected ones might be people who gained shelter during the calamity or the superior offspring the transfer team wanted to foster, or even somehow might be, depending on how much time has passed and how accurate Lewis’ diagnosis was, the progeny of the transfer team. As the daughter ponders what they’ll do for fuel once their source runs out, the father says, “They’ll figure out another way for us.” “But what if that’s too hard?” the daughter persists, “Or expensive? And what if they decide they can’t change?…We’ll use each-other then, won’t we?” And the car rolls on over the horizon.

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Fonda leaves behind his relatively straight sci-fi scenario into a realm closer to fable here, illustrating his concept of civilisation coming at the cost of constantly dwindling resources and a social-Darwinian process of consumption, for a more surreal and fantastical device, although it certainly also concludes the movie’s narrative proper with an apt taste of blood in the mouth. At the same time, this is also a precise symbolic encapsulation of the psychological distress that grips Karen finally claiming her into a black pit of total nihilism. As an ending this manages to outdo the last two films Fonda had a hand in when it comes to leaving off on a dark and downbeat note, with the Idaho state motto offered, “Esto Perpetua,” or It Is Perpetual, offered as a queasy promise and threat. Even if it had gained a proper release at the time, Idaho Transfer was obviously never going to be the stuff of a popular hit even by the gritty standards of the early 1970s, and is probably still too spare, too severe, to make it as a major cult object. But if you get onto its strange wavelength it leaves an aura of blended melancholy and meditative pensiveness lingering for days. It is, in the end, as much a portrait of Fonda’s struggle with his interior world as with his worries about the outer one, but his most singular achievement in the end is to erase the difference, and the warning Fonda sounded has only grown from a dull throb of anxiety to a blaring alarm in the intervening years. Certainly Idaho Transfer represents a fascinating labour from a rarefied talent, and whilst it’s a good thing it’s available to all today, it also certainly deserves to be seen in a far more respectful state.

Idaho Transfer can be viewed for free on YouTube here.

 

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie, Political, Television

Game of Thrones (TV, 2011-19)

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Creators: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

By Roderick Heath

For much of the past decade, Game of Thrones stood astride the popular zeitgeist as a colossus. Game of Thrones inspired obsessive loyalty and served as a flagship for a much-hailed second golden age of television allowed by burgeoning cable TV and benefiting from the new panoply of viewing opportunities. It became the arch example of a ravenously consumable “binge-watch” programme and dwarfed just about any film rival save the Marvel Cinematic Universe, setting records for Emmy wins and internet piracy. The series was adapted from an as-yet unfinished cycle of novels started by sci-fi and fantasy writer George R.R. Martin in 1991, entitled A Song of Ice and Fire, although the TV version adopted the title of the first entry in the cycle. A professional author since the early 1970s, Martin struggled to gain anything like a reputation commensurate with his ability, standing like other similar talents in Stephen King’s huge shadow. Ironically Martin’s recourse to working in television, including on the Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman vehicle Beauty and the Beast in the late 1980s, equipped him with unusual gifts when he finally decided to tackle the kind of fantasy epic he had loved since he was a kid with a nose in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books: he added an extra ‘R’ to his penname to acknowledge the debt.

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But Martin didn’t want to write fantasy as airily mythical, idealised, and Manichean as Tolkien, trying instead to create a deeply conceived, palpable, often terrifying fictional universe governed by many of the same rules as the world we all know. The schism at the heart of Game of Thrones, a work torn between grand imaginative frontiers and a hardnosed metaphorical depiction of humanity’s often terrible march towards modernity, proved both key to the show’s addictive appeal and also the source of the often aggravating sense of grievance it could leave in its wake. Martin, who helped produce the show and wrote several episodes, had wittingly or not composed his novels in a fashion that reflected his TV experience and made them ideal for serial storytelling, with their long, overarching narratives matched to immediate vignettes tethered to the viewpoints of specific protagonists. Game of Thrones was boosted to such epochal success by several coinciding factors. As a tale of familial tribulation and communal fracture, it suited the post-Global Financial Crisis and War on Terror mood and rhymed with the more general portent of climate change and swiftly transforming economies. A generation had been reared on The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film series and were now hungry for a new fantasy franchise, but were also ready for something gamier and more adult in the genre, and were more prepared to accept the outsized metaphors of fantasy as capable of bearing the weight of serious themes than any mass audience before.

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The show was created and overseen for HBO by novelist and screenwriter David Benioff, who had written The 25th Hour (2002) and had explored embyronic aspects of the show in his screenplay for the Homeric epic Troy (2004), along with his fellow writer D.B. Weiss. The TV series pared down the novels’ digressions into exploring the manifold corners of Martin’s fictional universe but still featured dozens of recurring characters and required filming from Iceland to North Africa. Game of Thrones unfolds chiefly on Westeros, a continent on an imaginary world where the length of seasons are capricious, and a long and mellow summer is about to give way to an unknowably long and punishing winter. The chief clan of protagonists, the Starks, were once royalty in Westeros’ north and ruled from their seat of Winterfell, but the seven kingdoms of Westeros had been united three hundred years earlier by the Targaryen family, with a mysterious magical link to dragons and who used those animals to pulverise enemies on the path to total domination. The realm’s seat of royal power, the Iron Throne, was literally forged out of the swords of defeated enemies with a dragon’s fiery breath. The oft-incestuous Targaryens gained a reputation for inherent lunacy, eventually sparking a great rebellion that saw many different great families in the realm join together and overthrow their dynasty, installing Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) in their place. Ten years into Robert’s reign, the King visits Winterfell to ask his best friend and old ally Ned Stark (Sean Bean) to accept the post of “Hand of the King” or chief minister to replace a predecessor who has recently died. Robert is married to Cersei (Lena Headey), scion of another great family, the Lannisters, famed for their deep resources of both gold and political savvy. Robert dislikes Cersei and ruling equally, preferring drinking, whoring, and hunting. Cersei has long since found comfort in an incestuous relationship her twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is the true father of her three children, Robert’s nominal heirs.

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The early episodes sketch the tenuous balance of personalities and factions sustained through Robert’s reign, and how his lack of interest in the niceties of kingship sows seeds of coming conflict. Rivals like the Lannister patriarch Tywin (Charles Dance) can accrue great influence through all but subsidising the kingdom, whilst resentments build up elsewhere, including in the old North kingdom, and Dorne, in the far south, for the losses of people and honour they suffered. The friendship between Robert and Ned seems like a sturdy foundation to sustain peace on, particularly as Ned is a deeply honourable and decent leader who has tried to instil his values in his sizeable brood of children and dependents, including sons Robb (Richard Madden) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), daughters Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams), and bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harington). By comparison the Lannisters have a reputation for cold-blooded conniving. Sansa is betrothed to Robert’s heir Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), but he quickly proves a budding psychopath. The tomboyish Arya’s unremitting hate for Joffrey is stoked when a playful fencing game she has with a peasant lad leads to that boy’s slaying after Joffrey starts bullying them. Arya also resents Sansa for siding with Joffrey in trying to fulfil her own dream of becoming queen and escape the comparatively dull and squalid northern backwater.

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Jaime, labelled “Kingslayer” by all and sundry for having delivered the coup-de-grace to the last, lunatic Targaryen king despite being his bodyguard, seems a glib and supercilious playboy. He pushes Bran off a tower where the boy spies him and Cersei having sex. Bran is left a paraplegic, and after an assassin is killed trying to finish the job, Ned’s wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) has the killer’s dagger identified as belonging to Jaime and Cersei’s younger brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), often labelled “The Imp” because of his dwarfish stature and penchant for dissolute living. Catelyn has Tyrion taken captive and transported to another region, ruled by her unstable sister Lysa (Kate Dickie). Whilst serving in the capital King’s Landing, Ned uncovers the truth about Cersei’s children and offers her a chance to flee, but Cersei, covertly a hard and vicious operator who fancies herself Tywin’s truest progeny, instead contrives Robert’s seemingly accidental death before having Ned arrested for treason. Cersei tries to arrange a swap of Tyrion in exchange for Ned’s life, but the newly-crowned Joffrey, delighting in power and bloodlust, instead has Ned beheaded. This sparks a furious continental power struggle that sees Robb leading Northerners in rebellion, whilst Robert’s brothers, the talented but glum and charmless soldier Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and the charismatic and gay Renly (Gethin Anthony), informed by Ned of the heirs’ bastardry, each raise armies to make themselves king.

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This core drama obeys a realistically nasty sense of medieval society and its dynastic players, drawn from a number of ready sources. These include Greek and Jacobean tragedy, Shakespeare’s history plays, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels and their 1970s TV adaptation, Maurice Druon’s French historical novel series The Accursed Kings, Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle, Michael Moorcock’s fantasy cliché-smashing Elric of Melniboné tales, and The Godfather films, from which it significantly assimilates, and recapitulates in the most hyperbolic terms, the theme of a family trying to operate in a corrupt and hostile world whilst retaining a vestige of honour. Overt fantasy elements are pushed to the far fringes at first, glimpsed in vestigial remnants and hunks of infrastructure that now seem to have no proper use, from dragon eggs long turned to stone and the skulls of the Targaryens’ conquering monsters stowed in a basement, to a colossal wall of ice built to guard the north against supernatural forces, but which now merely stands to hold out wildings, the hard and bitter peoples who subsist in the frozen wastes. The signature touch of white hair that marks the Targaryens pays tribute to Elric and to Melville, imbuing the breed with a hint of the uncanny, of extraordinary power and also a suggestion of innate decadence and inhumanity. The wall is manned by the Night’s Watch, a once-legendary band of holy warriors now mostly filled out by convicted criminals and social refuse. Jon Snow learns this to his shock and shame when he volunteers to serve with them. The very first scene of the series however has signalled something is coming along with the winter, as some Night’s Watch men are attacked by a mysterious and terrifying foe that can induct their own victims into their ranks, as glowing-eyed zombies dubbed White Walkers.

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Where most high fantasy aims to create a fabled classical past as it might have been synthesised in medieval folklore, Game of Thrones rather portrays that medieval mentality as still uncomfortably and half-sceptically infused by that past. The first season sets up the essential dramatic tensions and conflicts in relatively low-key terms, the death of the peasant boy presaging a story predicated around portrayals of aristocratic selfishness waged in general contempt for the greater populace. Here the innocent often get ground into so much mince by the machine of statecraft, where some characters defend their prerogatives with unstinting precision and others are confronted by the near-impossibility of getting anything like justice when such forces rule the world, and so must find ways to armour themselves through arts both delicate and warlike. Martin’s youth in the counterculture era informs the pervading spirit of the material in the grand-scale recapitulation of The Who’s famous lyric, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Ned’s effort to operate according to his scruples helps to unleash a near-apocalypse, costing him and Robert their lives, nearly destroying their families, and sparking internecine warfare that convulses across the length and breadth of Westeros. Catelyn and Cersei’s mirroring desire to protect their children and bring their enemies to book similarly fuels the carnage.

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Part of the overall narrative’s ingenious thrust was sourced in the inclusion of two major storylines that contrast the relatively petty squabbling of the Westerosi clans with momentous and slowly uncoiling threats, allowing a varied blend of not just plots but types of storytelling. One of these is the inexorable White Walker army, massing in the wait for winter’s start. The other is Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who, along with her older brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd), is the last known surviving member of the former ruling clan. Now subsisting in exile on the neighbouring, Eurasia-like continent of Essos, Viserys tries to purchase an army to regain the Iron Throne by essentially selling Daenerys as a bride to Khal Drogo (Jason Mamoa), a chieftain of the virile nomadic warrior tribe known as the Dothraki. Daenerys manages to turn this humiliating and violating fate to her own advantage as she deftly captures Drogo’s unwavering love. When Viserys proves too big for his britches Drogo promises him a crown that will make men shudder to contemplate, and promptly has a vat of molten gold poured on his head. Drogo dies when a light wound from a duel is turned into a fatal one by the efforts of a witch from a tribe his Dothraki enslaved, leaving Daenerys with only one great act of faith to ensure the rebirth of her dynasty left to dare. She has herself and the stone dragon eggs that are the last remnant of the breed burned together with Drogo on his funeral pyre, along with the tethered witch. Daenerys emerges from the fire unharmed, proven to be the true Targaryen kind, and three infant dragons hatched and regarding her as their mother.

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Daenerys soon gains a fanatical following as she uses her ever-amplified personal legend, and equally fast-growing dragons, to attract adherents and begin assaulting the status quo in Essos. At first with guile and then increasingly with brute force, she captures several large cities with a determination to wipe out slavery, gaining help from freed slaves and obtaining the unswerving loyalty of the Unsullied, a corps of cruelly but effectively trained warrior eunuchs. She attracts loyalists including former slave and translator Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), the Unsullieds’ choice for commander from their own ranks. She also has Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), a former Westeros knight exiled for slave trading by Ned, who tried to regain his standing by spying on the Targaryen siblings but instead finds himself welded in personal loyalty and affection to Daenerys, whilst she is more drawn to the glib but romantic mercenary Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein and Michael Huisman). Daenerys’ following is built on assaulting the malign regimes both on Essos and Westeros, and holds the promise of freedom for the oppressed that Daenerys feels messianically obliged to deliver. But it remains disturbingly contingent on Daenerys’ willingness to unleash brutal poetic justice upon various collectives of malefactors, countenancing such acts as having one enemy and a traitorous handmaiden sealed alive in a vault, crucifying slave owners, and relying on the shared capacity of the Unsullied and her brood of dragons to devastate enemies with no questions asked.

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One major theme of the show is that of the repercussions of specific choices and actions, particularly when performed against the evident necessity of a given situation. The kinds of crisis of conscience and acts of defiant agency-seeking that define modern drama are often painted as indulgence in the face of foes who will gladly murder you while you sleep, and yet are eventually validated nonetheless as the only possible answer to such nihilism. Ned and Robb are joined as father and son both doomed by their incapacity to wield cunning and dexterity in concert with moral action, and so are outflanked by more ruthless foes. Arya dedicates herself to the idea of making people face the consequences of their actions, even pushing this to the point of abandoning a wounded man as she feels he deserves a slow death, and later slaughtering a knight who killed her fencing teacher with terrible relish. But when she joins a sect called The Faceless Men to learn their prodigious assassin arts she cannot give herself up to their religious dedication, a lapse that almost gets her killed. Daenerys’ attempts to end slavery constantly collide with the much deeper problem of how to revise the basics of a society, eventually driving her to conclusions similar to Mao and Stalin in her revolutionary course. When a finer quality wins out, it’s usually the cumulative result of long and demanding discipline as well as sacrifice, and the seeds of good deeds take much longer to flower than expedience. Some acts win through in a crisis of the moment but leave a lingering flavour of disgust whilst others seem to fail in the moment and yet offer the possibility of treasured worth. Thus the Starks are nearly decimated in the first half of the series and yet, finally, emerge triumphant.

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Around the central dynastic players orbits a host of ingeniously conceived and cast supporting characters. There’s Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), a freakishly large and strong noblewoman who’s taken up a knightly creed without actually being a knight, first introduced seeking a place amidst Renly’s bodyguards. Fate drives her to the twinned tasks of avenging Renly’s assassination and protecting the Stark children, whilst also at first stuck with Jaime’s company and then doomed to linger in love with him. Varys (Conleth Hill) is a eunuch who serves the Iron Throne with his genius for gathering intelligence but considers himself far more loyal to the realm at large rather than any one ruler. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) is a pimp and plotter who has risen to the royal council, harbouring a secret desire to become King and somehow win back Catelyn, his childhood love, and after she dies, setting his sights on Sansa instead. Sandor “The Hound” and Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane (Rory McCann and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) are husky brothers bound by shared fighting pith and deep mutual hatred, each employed as thugs by the crown. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) is the portly, timorous scion of a macho knight bullied into joining the Night’s Watch where he’s taken under Jon’s wing, slowly blooming into a man of action and learning who also takes on a wife and her child he rescues from the frozen north.

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Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) is a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis who was impressed by his ingenuity, nicknamed ‘the Onion Knight’ for his sarcastic choice of emblem and who serves for Stannis, sometimes to appreciation and often to its opposite, as a voice of earthy wisdom. He loses a son to Tyrion’s explosives during the assault on King’s Landing but later finds himself allying with Tyrion as well as Jon and others as the White Walker threat becomes urgent. Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) is an enigmatic and manipulative priestess for a god called the Lord of Light who influences Stannis with sex and displays of magic, burns sacrificial victims en masse, and achieves Renly’s death through birthing a vaporous magical assassin. Gendry (Joe Dempsie) is one of Robert’s illegitimate sons, a talented blacksmith who briefly becomes Arya’s companion in fleeing King’s Landing, is tapped for his royal blood by Melisandre for her incantations, and eventually finds himself granted Robert’s old titles and lands. During a venture north to head off an imminent invasion by a massed wilding army, Jon has a passionate affair with the garrulous but deadly archer Ygritte (Rose Leslie). The fierce yet strangely likeable Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) eventually becomes Jon’s unshakable ally in efforts to save the wildings from the White Walkers. Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) is the ambitious daughter of another great house who takes Sansa’s place as Joffrey’s intended and happily plays any role, from saintly princess to partner in sadism, to further her aims, backed up all the way by her formidable grandmother Olenna (Diana Rigg). Her brother Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) is a glamorous knight who is not so secretly queer and Renly’s lover, but finds himself committed to becoming Cersei’s second husband.

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The vast number of these and other players contribute to the constantly recapitulated theme of outsiders imbued with contrasting talents and sullen, long-foiled desires that find a stage for realisation, proto-moderns both out of time and place and yet imbued with strange grace for existing within a pre-modern world. A lot of current pop culture seeks to flatter its audience by narrowly illustrating and confirming a progressive sense of history, but whilst Game of Thrones makes is sympathies clear it also muddles easy identification and refuses easy victories, one reason why, despite its fantastical aspects, it rang true for a vast number of viewers. The show constantly indicts a certain brand of stiff-necked and abusive patriarchy as a corrosive force, presenting many septic father figures, like Samwell’s father who threatens to arrange his death if he doesn’t disinherit himself, and the brilliant but self-righteous and coldly domineering Tywin, as figures who try to impose rigorous control and yet again are destroyed by their self-delusion. The ultimate figure along these lines in the show is Craster (Robert Pugh), a wilding who’s carved out a home in the frozen wilderness and fosters a brood of daughters he keeps under an incestuous thumb, sacrificing his boy children to the evil beings who control the White Walkers. Ginny (Hannah Murray), the girl Samwell saves, is one of his daughters. Craster is eventually murdered by mutineers of the Night’s Watch, who also slay Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo), their commander and Jorah’s father, during a disastrous foray into the wastes.

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One of the more compelling characters in the suffering offspring mould is Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), the son of the nominal king of the piratical Iron Islanders off the Westeros coast, raised as a hostage by the Starks but essentially a member of the family. Theon is initially portrayed as a cocksure bigmouth with no real character. Once Robb kicks off his rebellion he sends Theon to his father Balon (Patrick Malahide) to negotiate his aid, but Balon coldly rebuffs Theon as a foreigner, preferring his much more aggressive sister Yara (Gemma Whelan). Theon tries to prove his worth by instead leading an attack on Winterfell and pretending to kill Bran and the youngest Stark son Rickon (Art Parkinson), substituting the bodies of two slain farmhands in their place. Theon is eventually betrayed and taken captive by a mysterious young man who takes great delight in sadistically tormenting him. This man proves to be Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon), the bastard son of Stark loyalist Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), who has his own deceitful project under way. Theon inspires degrees of disdain, pathos, and admiration in the course of his experience, his fumbling efforts to prove himself worthy of his creed, his pride as a lover and his impotence as a princeling finally, terribly mocked in one swoop when Ramsay castrates him and sends his boxed genitals to his family. By the time Yara comes to rescue him, he’s reduced to such a wretched, servile thing she’s forced to abandon him.

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Theon’s capture and initially inscrutable suffering is one aspect of the show’s third season, which, with its jolting twists, served at once to disorientate a growing viewership but also sank the hooks of addiction more deeply. The malicious cunning reaches an apogee in the episode “The Rains of Castamere” where Robb tries to restitch his alliance with sleazy, aged, petty potentate Walder Frey (David Bradley) after breaking a vow to him to marry one of his daughters, having instead taken the smart and lovely foreign healer Talisa (Oona Chaplin) as a bride. During a feast of reconciliation, the Freys, in alliance with Bolton and with Tywin’s covert backing, suddenly attack and slay Robb, Talisa, Catelyn, and much of the Stark army, in an atrocity quickly dubbed the Red Wedding. This act of treachery nonetheless seems to virtually end the civil war and leaves the Lannisters in apparently firm control, as Tyrion and Tywin have already beaten off Stannis’ seaborne assault on King’s Landing. Arya, in the custody of the Hound who wants to ransom her back to her kin, barely escapes being caught up in the Red Wedding. Her near-crazed hunger for revenge begins to manifest as she recounts a list of enemies to slay before sleeping at night, and keeps starting fights with factional goons the Hound has to finish. Despite the fact he’s one of the names of Arya’s list for his role in killing the peasant boy, the Hound feels a near-paternal responsibility for the Stark girls, only to be left to die by Arya after he loses a duel after a chance encounter with Brienne. Arya refuses to go with Brienne, instead heading to Essos to join the Faceless Men, one of whom, Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), she encountered as a prisoner and whose stealthy talents in killing helped save her, Gendry, and others from a sorry end.

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Martin took inspiration for the Red Wedding from events in Scottish history, although his explorations of its ramifications echo back to Greek tragedy, forging a kind of anti-Alcestis. The series charts the devolution of social and civic mores in Westeros to the point where all scales for measuring decency are broken. This theme is borrowed from I, Claudius in particular, with Joffrey and Ramsay representing the kinds of fiends who revel in the power they can indulge when such limitations dissolve, in the same way Caligula did in I, Claudius. More importantly, the Red Wedding’s bloody shock and Theon’s gruelling torture signalled a series that didn’t exactly have reassuring its audience in mind, and fulfilling Martin’s credo of trying to undercut the clichés of his chosen genre and truly portray a world completely lacking the kinds of soft landings provided by modernity and well-knit civilisation. Game of Thrones is always wise on a dramatic level to leaven the often punishing tone with flashes of droll humour, particularly from Tyrion, whose forthright tongue slashes holes in egos and pretences across two continents. At the same time, the longer arcing plotlines point towards dates with destiny in a manner that contradicts such self-detonating narrative mischief. The show sometimes even offers sourly funny inversions of its own clichés. Tyrion relies on sardonic man-at-arms Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to serve as his champion in a trial by combat to escape Lysa’s clutches in the first season, but is condemned in the fourth when he nominates the vengeful Dornish prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) to fight The Mountain for him in a similar situation, only for Oberyn to lose the duel in a manner at once dismaying and blackly comic.

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Tyrion is the show’s heart, played with true brilliance by Dinklage. Tyrion, hated by his father and sister because his mother died giving birth to him but held in bonds of affection to Jaime, has a humanistic mind to which he adds, when Tywin decides to make him Hand of the King whilst he’s busy fighting the war, a talent for ruling and Machiavellian plotting. Long used to indulging bought sex and wine to compensate for his failings in physical and dynastic stature, Tyrion is often regarded as the real monster by the populace, blaming him for crimes and misdeeds actually committed by Joffrey and others, whilst Tyrion desperately tries to conceal his one vulnerability, the prostitute Shae (Sibel Kekilli) he’s fallen in love with and manages to conceal in the royal castle by posting her as the captive Sansa’s handmaiden. Tyrion’s inspired and valiant defence against the attack of Stannis’ force is overshadowed by his father’s charge to the rescue, and he’s soon faced with many humiliations, losing his post and being forced to marry Sansa, whom he dedicates himself to protecting from Joffrey’s harassment. When Joffrey is fatally and gruesomely poisoned at his wedding to Margaery, Tyrion is blamed, and he soon realises he’s going to be framed by Cersei and Tywin and is devastated when Shae helps get him convicted. Jaime helps Tyrion escape with Varys’ aid, but before fleeing Tyrion sneaks into his father’s chambers: when he finds Shae in his bed he strangles her, and then shoots his father on the toilet with a crossbow.

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Tyrion’s swerves of fortune and many goads to such homicidal rage and his attempts to live with himself after are charted with a precise sense of emotional calumny, his actions entirely understandable and yet once again damaging to what he means to protect: leadership of the Lannisters is left in Cersei’s tender care. Whilst talented in some of the same ways as her father and younger brother in plotting and manoeuvring, Cersei lacks Tywin’s cool sense of proportion and tries to make up the difference with unswerving bloody-mindedness and a tendency to mistake the needs of her ego for sovereign necessity. Her one saving grace is her maternal care, a grace she is relentlessly stripped of when Joffrey is poisoned and her daughter Myrcella (Aimee Richardson and Nell Tiger Free) is slain by Oberyn Martell’s lover and bastard daughters in revenge for his death. Margaery deftly pivots to marry Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), Joffrey’s decent but naïve younger brother, so Cersei, desperate to rid herself of the Tyrells, fosters a fanatical religious group that crops up in King’s Landing called the Sparrows. This sect is led by a saintly and shrewd former merchant turned monk (Jonathan Pryce), who proposes to cleanse the kingdom of its sins. Cersei arms the Sparrows and gives them power to seek out and prosecute the immoral: she get what she wants when Margaery and Loras are imprisoned but realises her terrible mistake when they arrest her too, whilst convincing the new king to support them. Cersei weathers her own perfect humiliation in being forced to walk from the Sparrows’ abode back to the royal residence, naked and abused by a gleeful crowd.

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The religious and spiritual motifs in Game of Thrones are, like its politics, generally cynical but also more disjointed and curious, and it highlights an area where the show is fails to offer a coherent sensibility despite leaning heavily on the mystical throughout. The Seven Kingdoms exalt the nominal modern religion of the Seven, a group reminiscent of the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons, although many still also hold to an older creed more closely connected to a shamanic sense of natural forces. Those forces prove to have been destabilised millennia before through human pressure, driving the “Children of the Forest”, figures akin to the Dryads of Greek myth and the Green Men of Celtic, to create the first White Walkers and possibly also cause the mysterious imbalance behind the distended seasons. The sight of Daenerys after surviving her husband’s funeral pyre, naked and cradling her dragon offspring, is one that might have come right out of some ancient folktale, one radically at odds with the structured, socially reflective faith of Westeros. In further competition is the monotheistic faith of the Lord of Light practiced by Melisandre and fellow ‘red priest’ Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye), who is also a member of the Merry Men-like Brotherhood Without Banners, who inconstantly try to fight for the peasantry. These two priests prove to have the ability to revive the dead through invocation to their deity, a seemingly definitive capacity for miracle that nonetheless remains confusing even to those revived.

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Various motifs, like Melisandre’s penchant for the auto-da-fe and the Sparrows’ righteous warpath that targets the powerful but likes singling out gay men and wilful women, evokes the darker side of medieval Christianity and doesn’t entirely fit with the generally pagan mores of Westeros, stretching to encompass such commentary. The narrative coldly undercuts any sense of certainty in spiritual power and justification in fanatical conviction when Melisandre convinces Stannis to save his failing campaign against the Boltons by sacrificing his young, disfigured daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) to the Lord of Light, Iphigenia-like, only for the spectacle to cause half his army to desert in disgust, leaving the rest to be hammered by Ramsay. The closest the series gets to defining the meaning of the flashes of the miraculous is when the Hound grimly notes of the Lord of Light, “Every lord I ever fought for was a cunt, why should he be any different?” This nonetheless does hint at an amusing metatextual joke, as the Lord of Light’s purpose in reviving the dead is conflated with authorial prerogative. By rights Jon, who gets assassinated by some of his fellow Night’s Watchmen who revile his attempts to make compact with the wildings, should die as the result of his choices as per the series convention, but the plot still needs him, so arise, spunky Lazarus. Likewise the slow process that sees many different and far-flung characters slowly drawn together to battle evil is informed by a wry conflation of a divine plan with storytelling felicity.

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The show is more confident and coherent in wielding the symbolic as well as narrative potency of the more clean-cut fantasy elements, which are ultimately far more palpable as expressions of human and natural phenomena. The White Walkers encapsulate an evocation of existential threat applicable to just about any great danger up to and including death itself, presenting a foe so frightening that it demands unity, trust, and unselfish heroism, the things that just happen to be sorely missing from Westeros life. Daenerys’ dragons describe at first the formidable strength located in a more ancient ideal of society then the henpecked feudalism of Westeros, as devices that can unite tribal peoples behind a god-ruler fuelled by a sense of divine mission, but also by series’ end cunningly link such atavistic power with nuclear weaponry, the most modern expression of such potency. They’re also tethered to Daenerys’ psychology as surrogate children and functions of her psyche, as a woman who sustains herself through initial degradation and later tribulation through conviction she is destined to rule, but also wants that conquest to have meaning, meaning she seeks to fulfil in freeing slaves and punishing the iniquitous. As she attempts to get down to the finicky business of actually ruling cities she captures, she locks away the dragons or lets them fly off, essentially castrating herself and trying to ignore her most prodigious talent, for unleashing destruction and wrath. Eventually, when she’s obliged to wage war with the dragons let loose in their full, mature fury, it seems like a heroic moment of revealed power, but also symbolises the tipping of a balance in Daenerys’ mind towards a darker conviction that in the end her might makes right.

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Bran’s story sees him gifted with great psychic abilities, like the ability to enter the bodies of animals and people, which emerge after his paralysis. After being driven away from Winterfell by Theon’s attack, he follows a recurring vision northward with the aid of his hulking manservant Hodor (Kristian Nairn), a man who’s plainly not an idiot and yet can speak no word other than his name, Osha (Natalia Tena), a former wildling and Stark servant, and Jojen and Meera Reed (Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Ellie Kendrick), another seer and his huntress sister who obey the cryptic urge to help Bran. Bran finds himself anointed to take the place of the “Three-Eyed Raven” (Max Von Sydow), an ancient oracle who stands as the interlocutor of the human and natural worlds and receptacle of all memory past and action present. Bran’s storyline is less incident-driven and more subtly conceived than much of the rest of the show, and is even absent from a whole season at one point, and its purpose doesn’t entirely become clear until the very end. In the meantime he presents a tempting target in the war against the White Walkers and their terrifying, seemingly unstoppable commander, the Night King (Vladimir Furdik), who wants as death incarnate to annihilate what Bran contains.

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Bran’s story links his evolution to a pantheistic concept of a world unified on a fundamental, natural level, but the connection between it and the other spiritual motifs is never clarified, a disappointment given the seemingly great expanse of time available to the series: it’s hard to shake the feeling the show, and through it Martin, wants his cake and to eat it. Nonetheless it pays off narrative-wise when Bran has to flee the invading White Walker force, requiring Hodor to jam shut a door and give Bran and Meera time to escape, his constant utterance revealed to have been sourced in the literal order to hold the door communed into his head as a teenager by Bran, indicating his entire life has been subsumed to the purpose of protecting Bran and sacrificing himself in this moment. A potentially silly culmination that nonetheless reaches for and achieves operatic force. Bran’s new awareness lets him easily solve hidden mysteries, allowing him to indict Baelish for his many crimes, and uncovering the great truth of Jon’s real parentage. But it also renders him a veritable void of personality, to the point where Meera abandons him in grief after realising the Bran she knew has essentially died.

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The show’s more satirical edge evokes a wry despoiling of the familiar motifs of the medieval morality play, particularly in the way characters like Tyrion and Varys contradict common depictions of physical deformity and peculiarity as markers of bad character. Dinklage had played Richard III on stage before being cast in the role, and Tyrion resembles a take on the Crookback king rendered according to a revisionist impulse, whilst Varys mocks the common figure of the untrustworthy eunuch. Arya’s training with the Faceless Men puts her in contact with a group of actors whose play converts recent history into fitting melodrama but also reproduces a version of reality both the current wielders of power and the audience with its inbuilt prejudices fondly wishes were correct, where Joffrey was a fair and noble king slain by his grotesque and malevolent uncle, and political and social truths work in the same way as feudal banners, clear in symbolic import. Game of Thrones undoubtedly attracted a great amount of its audience through its willingness to offer lashings of sex, bloodshed, and vulgarity in a gaudy manner denied to much contemporary big-budget cinema, freely exploiting the flexibility of subscription television in this regard as opposed to the mass audience aim of current Hollywood. The show took a lot of sardonic criticism in its time for an approach to plotting labelled “sexposition,” often having characters explain themselves and situations whilst fornicating enthusiastically and otherwise.

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One much-mocked example in the first season when Baelish schools Ros (Esmé Bianco), a newly-arrived northern lass joining his brothel, in the fine arts of seduction sexual and political, is actually a rather smart and feverishly erotic illustration of the theme of power applied through the deft use of puppetry, an art Baelish is dedicated to. That said, much of the bawdiness seen in the series does prove forced and impersonal, although to its credit it tries to be even-handed in servicing the audience, most gleefully in portraying the bisexual orgy Oberyn and his paramour indulge, and it also taps it for some humour value, as when Tyrion is bewildered to find his squire Podrick (Daniel Portman) a sexual prodigy after buying him an interlude with prostitutes as a reward. The sexuality exists in constant relation to violence, which borders on the genuinely off-putting at times, particularly as Joffrey gets his brutal jollies with prostitutes, in Ramsay’s torment of Theon and, later, Sansa, and sequences like one where prisoners are killed by bored Lannister soldiers who contrive to have live rats eat through them, a genuinely Sadean touch. The idea of violence as a universal trait is certainly at the core of the series, sometimes an art wielded with purpose and discrimination and at other times just a way of releasing boredom and frustration for men weathered well beyond empathy, but always with a fervent sense of its ugliness.

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Arya’s storyline contends with her efforts to transform herself into the perfect engine of violence, applied with a surgical skill and in accord with the precise arithmetic on the moral abacus, as she evolves from a rough-and-tumble teenage girl delighting in learning swordplay for its own sake with a vague ambition to avoid becoming another castle lady, to a brilliant, rather frightening killer who nonetheless achieves a level of self-direction and freedom none of the other characters gain. Amongst all the characters on the show Arya has the widest purview on the horrors unleashed by the war, spending time amongst slaves and then as the oblivious Tywin’s servant, experiencing disillusion on all levels save faith in a personal god of vengeance. Her spell with the Faceless Men sees her eventually rejecting their amoral service to Death as an anonymous and disinterested “many-faced god.” This puts her in lethal conflict with a fellow waif (Faye Marsay) whose motivations may, or may not, rhyme with her own but are not accompanied by any scruples or sense of empathy. Arya is punished by Jaqen for her refusal to follow orders by taking her sight away and forcing her to learn to fight the waif blind, a gift that ironically allows Arya to defeat her later in a true duel as her foe, who delights in indiscriminate death, has never broken the rules and therefore never been trained this way. Arya’s return to Westeros is announced in the most sublimely Jacobean fashion when she slaughters Walder Frey after fooling him into eating his sons baked into a pie, before then taking on Walder’s appearance and poisoning all his underlings at a feast.

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Sansa, by contrast, seems for much of the series to be the most passive and hapless of the Starks, paying the endless price for being, in Arya’s view, a pretty airhead with princess fantasies. Joffrey takes delight in forcing her to look upon her father’s severed and impaled head. She’s eventually sold by Baelish, after he spirits her out of King’s Landing, to Ramsay as a bride, despite his affection for her, to buy Ramsay’s good will. The heartless scion rapes and tortures Sansa, eventually rousing Theon from his traumatised state: he helps her escape whilst Ramsay cleans up Stannis’ army. Sansa, robbed of any last remnant of her naivety, soon evolves into an imperious force in her own right, even making a deal with Baelish despite knowing what he is to help save the day when she and Jon lead an outmatched army against Ramsay. Ramsay’s end, with Sansa feeding him to his own hungry hounds, is another pure Jacobean moment. The series is ultimately, despite its ambiguities, most essentially a cracking good melodrama replete with bad baddies and breathless last-second rescues. But it also tries to complicate its morality to a bracing degree. The series constantly tries to imbue its many moments of relished payback with a note of discomfort as we see once good people, however justifiably, pushed into similar zones of subterfuge and cruel relish as their tormentors. It votes its many devils like Tywin and Cersei, Baelish and Ramsay, flashes of sympathy in comprehending how they’ve been formed by their eternally dogging and unanswerable desires. A figure like Olenna, as ruthless, murderous, and Machiavellian in her way as any of her enemies, nonetheless comes across like a positive character for her assured sense of just ends and distaste for posturing of any kind.

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Notably, the narrative repeatedly extracts payment for redeemable characters who do evil things by robbing them of precious things, particularly body parts. Jaime is the most successful of the series’ ambiguous characters. Introduced as a golden boy nonetheless held in contempt by all and sundry for his killing of the “Mad King,” a man who casually tries to kill Bran whilst fucking his own sister and strangles a cousin to escape the Starks’ clutches, Jaime nonetheless is slowly revealed to be a complex man capable of great decency, and whose deeds reflect the often impossible positions he’s thrust into: he killed the king to save King’s Landing from general immolation, and made the choice to protect his own family rather than the Starks. His road movie-like travels with Brienne, tasked with taking him back to his family, sees him forging a genuine camaraderie with her, and his attempt to save Brienne from being brutalised by some Bolton goons who capture them results in his getting his sword hand hacked off. Jaime, greatly weakened as a fighter but shocked into a new gallantry, saves Brienne again and dedicates himself to trying to head off ill fate, freeing Tyrion and heading off to try and save Myrcella, before eventually committing himself to the battle against the White Walkers despite Cersei’s refusal to help.

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The show’s incredible production values often pay off in truly impressive spectacle, particular in the episodes directed by Neil Marshall, maker of cult works like Dog Soldiers (2002), The Descent (2005), and Centurion (2010): his “Blackwater” in season 2 and “The Watcher on the Wall” in season 4, where Jon emerges as a great leader figure as he and the Night’s Watch fight off the wildling horde, are superior in filming and dramatic tension to most blockbuster movies in the past decade. A terrific action sequence in a fourth season episode sees Meera, Jojen, and a Bran-possessed Hodor battling off a gang of animated skeletons, paying cutting-edge tribute to the famous climax of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), whilst the thunderous climaxes of the seventh season depict Daenerys using her dragons to great effect against earthbound foes both living and dead. Game of Thrones eventually ran into a great deal of vexation and disappointment from viewers as it reached its final seasons, with many finding the last in particular hurried and flimsy. To my eye, the show’s wobbles come rather earlier, around the fifth and sixth seasons, as so many of its driving plotlines demanded resetting or replacement following the fourth, and several elements are set up only to be left hanging, all whilst still trying to maintain the same sense of velocity. Tyrion and Varys’ journey east to meet up with Daenerys and seek employment with her, whilst Daenerys herself is obliged to flee political enemies and is snatched away by the Dothraki, opens up great new vistas for these characters.

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And yet this hemisphere plays out in a herky-jerky manner, failing to build storylines as effectively as before, and resolving with Tyrion picked to be Daenerys’ Hand without much good cause. That said, these seasons still offer some very effective movements, including Jon’s murder and resurrection, and the climax of Cersei’s conflict with the Sparrows. The latter is dealt with in an aptly megalomaniacal manner as Cersei blows up the cult and sundry other enemies in one colossal blast, finally achieving agency to match her willpower but also foiling herself, as the spectacle drives Tommen to kill himself in grief. Cersei becomes queen in her own right and sets about ruling with an iron hand, allying with Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), a charismatic and well-travelled rogue who has murdered his brother Balon and driven Yara and Theon into exile, and falling pregnant to Jaime again. Season 6 concludes with Daenerys and her entourage and army finally arriving in Westeros, taking over Stannis’ old castle and making punishing war on Cersei’s forces. Her awesome campaign is forestalled as Jon comes to her and asks for her help against the White Walkers, and the two handsome young monarchs quickly fall in love, although the underlying tension of their political mating remains rather less pliable.

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Game of Thrones ultimately ran into a problem of expectations in a narrative that built its initial appeal around willingness to confound expectations. And confound it did. Ned, played by the nominal series lead and best-known cast member, doesn’t survive the first season, and subsequent plot strands zigzag with roguish energy, managing the tricky task of satisfying without doing so obviously. Joffrey’s sticky end, the object of fervent wishing from both other characters and viewers, not only comes with an unexpected jolt of pathos but also invests a host of new story reverberations. Yet most of Martin’s desecrations of plot actually service his longer games, like clearing away relatively superfluous or over-familiar and stolid characters like Robb and instead obliging the survivors to enact stranger paths to victory that make their eventual triumphs all the sweeter. The TV series moves from being a reasonably intimate political thriller where no-one is safe to a spectacular fantasy war epic where all your favourite characters are pitched in together. One risk, evidently, lay in continuing the series past where Martin had reached, especially considering that many of the best scenes in the early seasons had been copied almost verbatim from the books. But sooner or later the storyline had to deliver on its most essential promises, or dissolve into a mass of self-defeating gamesmanship, or else a total embrace of anarchism. The dichotomy here perhaps accounts for why Martin has failed thus far to resolve the novel series.

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That said, I didn’t really feel upon watching the series right through that the later seasons represented any precipitous drop in quality. Rather on the contrary, they deliver as both spectacle and drama and manage the unenviable task of focusing such a sprawling tale to crucial focal points. Some aspects do certainly feel ungainly, like the blinding speed with which Euron builds a powerful new fleet and the way he seems able to make it turn up anywhere by surprise (Asbæk’s outsized performance in the role does however give the later episodes a jolt of much-needed roguish energy). But the degree to which they hurt the show has been often ridiculously overstated, and I’ve seen some other promising series of recent years that bellyflop far more painfully. Perhaps it’s an indication of where pop culture is these days, preferring the open road of narrative rather than firm conclusions and attendant ideas. Game of Thrones remains propulsive and underlines its cumulative concepts and messages lucidly. One significant aspect of the show’s overall sweep is the way it takes up Thomas Hardy’s dictum that character is fate. Figures like Ned and Robb die precisely because they cannot act against their inner natures. Whilst most of the characters experience transformations of one form or another, such evolution is more a function of the inner person than something imposed from without. Jaime emerges as a weirdly heroic figure and yet cannot finally escape his bond with his utterly hateful sister. Daenerys tries to describe a legend and an ethical scheme for herself that flies in the face of her actual proclivities. Tyrion finds something close to a faith in dedicating himself to Daenerys but ultimately finds his cynical, honest, defiant self is ultimately worth more. The younger Starks, who grow up in the course of the series and so are formed by their reactions, can be said to be forged by such circumstance, and even then their eventual personas reflect where they’ve come from. Most pointedly, all are ultimately left to act out their own pathologies once the great existential business of defeating the White Walkers is dealt with.

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Jon is the most traditional hero figure, sent down from heaven’s central casting with his defining sense of eternal psychic conflict (compulsory for a proper modern hero) matched to a consistently valiant and honest outlook, as well as his emo-dreamboat good looks. The show takes some time to make a real case for Jon being at all interesting, partly because his growth process is from a callow youth who’s talented and well-trained in fighting to one with authentic and genuine self-reliance and wisdom. Jon proves himself in the course of nominally betraying his vows to fulfil them, becoming one who constantly attempts to act on his most honourable and humane impulses even whilst never shying away from the risks he faces. Those risks run from standing up for Samwell at the outset to eventually making compact with the wildlings, and his strength, both in body and in mind, ultimately sustains him where many others fall. His punishment is to be robbed of nearly all he holds dear. He falls in love with Ygritte and then Daenerys but his dedication to the greater good ultimately costs each woman’s life, and at the end he is left the same man, ruefully aware of the punishing nature of identity and duty in both the immediate and philosophical senses, bereft of home if not purpose, as he was at the start. He’s not blessed with levels of impossible wisdom, either, assassinated by his comrades and suckered in by Ramsay’s sadistic showmanship in their epic grudge match “Battle of the Bastards” to the point where he almost blows the battle. The theme of facing consequences is returned to in the very climax of the story where Jon prepares with equanimity to burn in a fiery blast from a dragon’s maw in fair payment for a foul deed, perhaps the first person in the saga to ever face up in such a fashion.

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But Daenerys is the one figure whose sense of inner being is most thoroughly assaulted as her “children” are killed along with her most loyal friends. The key to her sense of mission as the anointed Targaryen, her great salve, is voided when she and Jon learn that he is in fact her nephew, the secret offspring of her long-dead older brother and Ned’s sister. Daenerys’ crisis is then enacted on city-levelling terms, in a bitter punch-line that underlines the dubiety the narrative always warned in regarding self-nominated heroes and dynastic rulers claiming divine right. Before that, Daenerys is seen at her most gallant as she puts aside her own mission and joins the Westerosi in the great fight against the White Walkers around Winterfell. Jon and his comrades have already tried to convince Cersei to help in the fight by capturing and exhibiting a White Walker, and Daenerys loses one of her dragons to the Night King’s ice lance in trying to rescue their raiding party. The Night King is able to induct the dead dragon into his force, using its power to break through the Wall. The great climax to that aspect of the story comes half-way through the final season in “The Long Night,” a unit of action brilliantly orchestrated by director Miguel Sapochnik, one that struggles to deliver a strong piece of spectacle despite the way an inherent aspect of the battle is blizzard-furled chaos, the army of zombies attacking on the ground whilst the dragon-riders do battle in the sky. Jorah and Theon die most heroically in the last stand of humanity before cold fate, and the Night King makes his remorseless march up to a solitary and exposed Bran in a sequence of excruciatingly well-sustained, mournfully-scored tension, also a particular highpoint for series composer Ramin Djawadi.

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Some complaints about the later seasons had validity but also often tended to smack of a common brand of that’s-not-what-I-would’ve-done fan whine. Many, for instance, felt that the task of felling the Night King was Jon’s anointed story duty, and I can understand the feeling of dashed expectation in that regard. But I also see the sense in the task falling instead to Arya, who takes out the ghoulish avatar just as he’s about to slay Bran and end the memory of mankind: Arya answers malign force with precision and guile, down to the witty flourish of deception and legerdemain she executes to take him down. This also accords with the whole course of Arya’s story: such a triumph sees Arya finally besting death itself after rejecting its amoral worship, giving final coherence to her story after her many dances near the edge of nihilism. Jon has his own arduous task in the end, as he’s faced with the necessity of supplanting or killing Daenerys to save the world in general and those he loves in specific from her decimating will. Criticism of Daenerys’ disintegration is again worth hearing out. Whilst the show certainly forewarns of such a turn and provides plenty of indicators that no matter how stable and decent a member of her clan might seem they contain the seeds of monstrosity, there’s a remarkably short space between her riding heroically to the rescue on her dragons to her incinerating large swathes of King’s Landing essentially as a gesture of answering dominance aimed at Cersei after the rival queen captures and executes Missandei.

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Nonetheless Daenerys’ psychology is intriguingly reminiscent of the main character in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), another self-made champion mixing intense neurotic revulsion for death and suffering driven to prove master of it by dealing it out, swaying from extremes of messianic heroism to base atrocity. The fiery wrath she unleashes on King’s Landing, a city she sees as essentially filled with collaborators in her father’s death and in Cersei’s murderous reign, comes after an excellent piece of wordless acting from Clarke as you all but see her soul crack in two, and serves as her “No prisoners!” moment. The great juggernaut of mutual destruction finally sees Cersei and Jaime dying together as Jaime tries to pluck his sister-lover out of the collapsing citadel, already mortally wounded from a fight with Euron over territorial rights to Cersei’s womb, and The Mountain and The Hound tumble together into roaring flames after Sandor forcefully dissuades Arya from killing Cersei. Arya is left to try and survive the apocalyptic flames shattering the city, the last and most terrible tableau in her witnessing of war and terror and one where her talents are utterly dwarfed by a new kind of impersonal annihilation. Full-on fascist parable hatches out as Daenerys holds court with the Unsullied arrayed in Nuremberg-esque rows and Tyrion passes his firm but impotent judgement by throwing away his Hand of the Queen pin. Tyrion nonetheless gains a kind of victory as he convinces Jon there’s no alternative to his slaying Daenerys.

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Jon finally commits the deed to Daenerys’ blank-eyed shock as the embrace in the ruined throne room. Her last remaining dragon melts down the Iron Throne – who knew dragons had such a great sense of dramatic irony? The image of Jon clasping Daenerys’ lifeless body nonetheless returns us to the realm of classical myth fit for the last act of a Wagner opera, an act of violence committed in the name of love that both entirely shatters and rebuilds the world’s moral crux. Bran is eventually selected by the new Westeros potentates, including Sansa, Samwell, Davos, and Arya, at Tyrion’s suggestion. Again, having Bran finish up king rankled many viewers, but it makes sense, once more, in terms of the series’ underlying metaphorical sprawl. Bran, all-seeing and all-knowing and scarcely caring about it, represents the arrival not of democracy or consensus in Westeros, but of the great trade-off that is modernity, encompassing phenomena like the internet and the surveillance state, coolly imposing order and promising peace and safety at the expense of privacy and unmediated liberty. The few remaining characters who prize their autonomy and indeed embody the very concept must as a consequence must past out over the margins into myth. Arya heads west to find the world’s edge, and Jon, exiled again to the Night’s Watch, treks into the frozen north with the wildings with the strong hint he’ll become their new leader. The best thing that can be said about Game of Thrones is that, love or loathe its conclusions, it manages the task of stitching such a rich and sprawling drama and its attendant ideas into a grand tapestry, and yet retaining the authentic pleasures of good pulp storytelling.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenwriters: J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio

By Roderick Heath

And so it ends. Again. For the third…oh look, forget it.

The revived Star Wars series got rolling in 2015 with overwhelming hype and predisposed affection from an eager audience, as the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm team and its hired gun directors promised to restore the original trilogy’s legacy through a blend of straightforward cavalier fun and new-fashioned cinema showmanship following the ambitious but often-derided prequel trilogy. J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a colossal hit and Rogue One (2016) seemed to successfully augur in a strand of one-off stories. But within the space of four years, much of that goodwill was squandered. The heated, sometimes ugly contest unleashed online by partisans over Rian Johnson’s follow-up Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) and the flat box office of Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), despite its being the jauntiest and most classical new entry, provoked worries the property might have been over-exploited far too quickly. As vast and rich as the Star Wars universe has proven in reams of expanded-universe literature, the cinematic experience has always been compelled by a singular subject, the fate of the Skywalker family, and its concurrent, elementary mythological motif: the search for a way to battle evil without becoming it. The eagerly anticipating crowd that gathered at midnight with me to watch the closing episode surely announced that despite all missteps, we all still wanted to see how it would all draw to a close.

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Abrams was rehired to helm the third instalment after Colin Trevorrow dropped out, and to a certain extent that was fair: whatever problems one had with The Force Awakens, Abrams had clearly laid claim to the new trilogy as his creative template. Johnson’s well-made but intensely frustrating middle episode tried oh so hard to critique and deepen the series and certainly betrayed an individual creative hand with a solid sense of dramatic architecture, but mostly only achieved a form of storytelling self-negation, neglecting some of the more germane ideas The Force Awakens set in play and sabotaging its own ones whilst dithering through some truly half-hearted plotting, whilst again killing off an original trilogy hero in an especially annoying way. On the other hand, it handled the pivotal new relationship between Daisy Ridley’s emerging titan Rey and Adam Driver’s Byronic villain Kylo Ren with a deft sense of strange attraction even in profound conflict. If The Last Jedi felt an awful lot like a Star Wars movie for people who don’t like Star Wars movies, the latest instalment, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, is likely to be just as divisive but along different lines: it’s most definitely one that’s been made in the interests of giving the audience what it supposedly wants. Abrams penned the script with Chris Terrio, with a storyline contributed to by previous creative hands Derek Connolly and Trevorrow. Many cooks, boil a lumpy broth they do.

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The often rushed and ungainly outlay of basic plot in The Rise of Skywalker betrays a trilogy forced to play some serious catch-up football in getting its essential narrative priorities oriented again just in time for a big finish. The Last Jedi left ostensible core villain Snoke (Andy Serkis) dead, the notionally powerful and impressive First Order now run by characters who barely seemed able to run a lemonade stand, and the tattered remnants of the Republic-defending Resistance escaping to fight another day with what appeared to be about two-dozen members. The Rise of Skywalker solves the problem of the first two points one fell swoop in its earliest scenes, as Kylo is provoked by a mysterious broadcast apparently sent out by the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), last seen getting shafted at the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983): quite literally, he died, but got better. Kylo tracks down one of two totemic markers that can give him the whereabouts of Exogol, the planet that was the ancient seat of the Sith cult, as Kylo intends to properly finish off Palpatine just as he killed Snoke to become the unquestioned leader of the Dark Side’s forces. Instead he learns Palpatine was behind Snoke and the First Order’s creation, and has assembled a colossal fleet of Star Destroyers with new weaponry giving each planet-killing capability, ready to go into action after decades of preparation for resurgence, which Palpatine dubs “the Final Order.”

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Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) on the Millennium Falcon on a mission to an ice-crusted asteroid to pick up information collected by a spy in the First Order revealing the newly emergent threat. The heroes manage to escape a battle with TIE fighters and get back to the jungle planet where the Resistance is hiding out. Rey is currently continuing her Jedi training with Leia (Carrie Fisher). Realising they have to find and destroy Palpatine and his fleet before it deploys, Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewie, and stalwart droids C3-PO (Anthony Daniels), BB-8 (Dave Chapman and Brian Herring), and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) set out to track down the other Sith totem. They follow a lead to Passanna, a desert planet where, amongst a local festival, they encounter Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and locate a dagger engraved with information about the marker’s location. C3-PO is programmed not to translate the Sith language, so he has to undergo a mind wipe to do so. This is performed on the planet Kijimi, where Poe also encounters former comrade in disreputable endeavours and old flame Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), who like Boba Fett perpetually wears a mask. Chewbacca is captured by the First Order and the gang stage a daring rescue by boarding Kylo’s Star Destroyer to snatch him back, before heading on to the Endor system and the ruins of the second Death Star, where the totem resides. There Rey has to confront not just Kylo but also the discomforting truth of her true birthright.

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To describe The Rise of Skywalker as fast-paced – the above synopsis should give a good idea just how it careens between plot points and locations, and that’s only the first half – could be understatement. The opening scene comes on as such a fat lump of just-add-water exposition, complete with Palpatine conjuring a huge fleet and greatly increased stakes just in time for the big series climax, that it immediately and seriously tests all credulity about just how carefully Disney-Lucasfilm have planned out this series. The Rise of Skywalker makes it even plainer that the production team has tripped over its own enthusiasm in trying to do in four years what took originally George Lucas eight, even not counting early development. The salving aspect is not negligible, however. Abrams’ visual flare, always frustratingly intermittent but sometimes properly arresting, is quickly evinced too. His feel for moody Chthonic imagery and shadowy colossi as explored in the huge, cyclopean reaches of the Sith temple goes some way to restoring the aspect of dreamlike scale and fantastic density to the series after the dull, technocratic look of Rogue One and The Last Jedi.

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There’s a brief but striking sequence in which Kylo has his shattered mask restored by an alien artisan, a sequence Abrams shoots with a sense of infernal ceremony in the guttering shades of red and blue and black and working of stygian tools. Like much of the film it’s a bit too vertiginously edited to gain all the graphic force it could have wielded, and yet this sequence give me a thrill, a reach into the same place of arcane ritual as the opening scene of Conan the Barbarian (1982). Abrams also offers one great set-piece, spoiled to a degree in having been excerpted almost in entirety for one of the film’s trailers, as Rey bring down Kylo’s TIE fighter as it charges her across a desert plain, with an astounding display of her now-honed powers. Notably, this scene is also a sidelong tribute to the famous arrival of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Abrams has long embraced the bricoleur aspect of Star Wars albeit usually only in terms of the original films and others from the same era. Here he packs in several nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as well, including the hunt for the Sith dagger and a movement where, like Marion in that film, it seems Chewbacca dies in an explosion only to reveal he was on a different craft. Rather oddly, the Sith dagger which proves to be a kind of map quotes a similar device in Robert Stevenson’s Disney-produced adventure film from the antedeluvian pre-Star Wars era, The Island at the Top of the World (1974), a touch that made me wonder if the screenwriters were paying it a nod of their own or if Disney never entirely neglects a property.

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The overstuffed, fleet-to-a-fault aspect of The Rise of Skywalker is a twin-edged blade, likely to aggravate critical opinion, and it occasionaly manages to feel like one of those later Harry Potter movies that were near-incomprehensible unless you’d read the book, despite not having such a basis. I confess to finding it both messy and something of a heartening deliverance not just in terms of this series but also the general tenor of some recent franchise films, like the pseudo-grandiose yet profoundly unimaginative and lethargic Avengers: Endgame. The breathless pace and sense of excitably boyish storytelling here contrasts both its predecessors, which had significant problems negotiating their middle acts and strained to prove all this meant something despite plainly not knowing what. Much of the fan frustration with the various provocations Johnson introduced in his instalment had a trite if not reactionary aspect, but as much again was justifiable because Johnson’s efforts accidentally highlighted a lack of direction overall. Lucas was always deceptively good at alternating tones and dramatic facets in his films in quick succession, something that a lot of the current franchisee cinema he technically birthed often shows no grasp of, tending instead to get lost in lengthy episodes of verbal explanation and theatrical character interaction. The Rise of Skywalker escapes this chiefly by having a lot of stuff do.

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There’s now a piling up of eye-catching new characters who don’t get that much to do, like Zorri and Jannah (Naomi Ackie), a warrior lady from a clan of equestrian survivalists on Endor who are all, like Finn, former Stormtroopers turned deserters and rebels. Jannah’s quick-dry gluing to Finn leaves his gal pal Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) looking in turn a bit stranded. More familiar faces don’t get much to do either: Dee Williams, still a Jovian screen presence, doesn’t get anything like the screen time and vital story function his compatriots from the old series had, and even Wedge (Denis Lawson) is dug up only to appear for all of about five seconds, the sort of touch that gives fan service its bad name. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), with her wizened visage and likeably tart tongue, is also now part of the rebel band and just as neglected as ever. Disney’s arrested-development sensibility is plain as it trucks in romantic partners as beards for its heroes only to either kill them off, ignore them, or comically deflate them, as happens between Zorri and Poe at the end. Which does to a certain extent highlight the relative bravery of the perpetually simmering, transgressive passion manifest between Rey and Kylo, or rather Ben, his alter ego. There’s a likeably brusque quality to some of the touches here however, like the casual slaying of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), revealed as the spy in the First Order not for any noble cause but because he wants revenge on Kylo. Hux was always a great annoyance for me in the trilogy as the worst kind of tinpot villain, but at least Abrams sees him off with a jolt of narrative impudence as well as faint shock. His place as snooty fascist boss is taken by Richard E. Grant as General Pryde, who gets to sneer at things aplenty for a few reels until he gets his comeuppance.

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I never liked the basic premise and storyline of the new trilogy, too obviously an attempt to recapitulate the original trilogy’s readily marketable strategy with slight tweaks rather than come up with a new template. And yet it’s managed to hold my interest enough, in ways I can’t put entirely down to the Pavlovian power of John Williams’ scoring. Much of the reason to stick with the new trilogy has been for the main characters as inhabited by the key cast members. Boyega’s struggled to keep Finn relevant despite the trilogy’s uncertainty about what use his character is beyond being one character whose natural instinct is to flee a terrifying danger only to learn his heroism like a new language. Whilst Poe has never felt like a role that really needed such a strong actor as Isaac in the part, he feels most vital in this instalment as he tries to find a working equilibrium with Rey, who’s just as fiery and self-assured as he is, whilst also provoking her to live up to her potential. He gets to show off some of Poe’s swagger and romantic streak, even if the film cheats him by sticking him in scenes with a former lover who hides always behind a mask and spurns his advances at the end. Still, Isaac’s roué look of come-hither to her is worth a hundred hours of CGI. At the time of The Force Awakens my first impressions of Driver weren’t agreeable, and yet as he’s proven himself a consistently interesting and unusual type of movie actor, and he’s fleshed out a figure who at first glance seemed an each-way bet, an emo-goth take on Anakin Skywalker with an added dash of Twilight-esque bad boy mystique, with a steady accumulation of gravitas and nuance. He’s proved particularly good at twisting Kylo’s occasional displays of unexpected sympathy into one of his cruellest weapons and the opposite, his most malign acts often seeming to contain as aspect of self-mortification.

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Ridley, the ingénue nobody had heard of at the time of The Force Awakens, who showed herself a little green and yet was still very promising in that movie, now inhabits Rey and her intense existence as a creature feeling the sway of powerful feelings and instincts intensified to the point of lunacy by the tides of the Force. The Rise of Skywalker’s plot throws her a perfect curveball as Rey learns the truth of her lineage. Yes, her parents were, as The Last Jedi established, not terribly important in themselves, but her lineage is nonetheless still consequential: her grandfather is Palpatine himself, and she is the heir he’s long sought to transfer his power and the Sith hive mind into. In terms of the wider series mythology, this makes no real sense – Palpatine reproduced?! with a woman?! – and given that it’s jammed in as a revelation in this very busy instalment, it feels a bit like something Abrams and the other writers pulled out of their exhaust ports. But it does serve a strong purpose beyond mere plot in that it gives Ridley a fine opportunity to bring out extremes of her character, the ferocity of her denial of evil in the previous episodes now tinted with strong overtones of self-righteousness and repudiation that can easily turn toxic. Rey struggles with her dark side and feels the temptations to perfectly egotistical power Palpatine has always represented, even glimpsing a vision of herself as a Sith in the evil-infested Darth Star ruins.

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Despite this, The Rise of Skywalker confirms something that seemed likely from The Force Awakens onwards: the lack of a driving idea behind the new trilogy. Lucas’ original trilogy, forthright and simple as it was, built itself around Joseph Campbell’s repurposed Jungian ideas in portraying the construction of a hero figure in mythic terms that also served as a metaphor for the path to maturation instantly coherent to its audience of surrogates: one great difficulty in making a sequel to this was that the original series had already portrayed the basic experience of life. The prequel trilogy was dedicated to examining creeping political decay and rising authoritarianism, as well as inverting the hero’s journey into a story of failed character. The Disney-sponsored series finally reveals itself as lacking any true storytelling compass apart from again setting up a gang of heroic pals and a great force of evil to take on. The determination to avoid any hint of the prequels’ holistic conceptualism including the political aspect has resulted in a new trilogy that’s confused about what the political struggle involved represents all the way through. We have somehow both a Republic and a Resistance, a centre of political consensus defended by a scrappy band of outsiders, and an evil enemy that is both insurgent cult and tony tyranny. The piling up of familiar series concepts in the finale has no mighty allegorical idea to convey but simply a need to pay off its many promises and make cool shit rain down.

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The closest thing it has gained to a fresh concept lies in Rey and Kylo’s antipathetic bond, one that has perverse, ethereal erotic overtones in uniting the headspace of a man torn by urges and rendered a patricidal bully, and a gutsy, noble heroine, hindered only by a misplaced faith her identity was worth discovering. The Rise of Skywalker hints an interesting new dimension in this regard as the twists of the story see Rey unleashing a dark and hateful side as she learns who she is and Ben Solo eventually winning the battle over Kylo Ren thanks in part to Rey almost killing him in the eye of her nihilism. A good portion of the story here had to be knitted around Carrie Fisher’s tragic passing, solved with digital hocus-pocus reconfiguring some unused scenes from earlier episodes that is at least not as painful as the CGI Peter Cushing in Rogue One but still can’t quite disguise the patching. Fisher’s absence certainly doesn’t aid one aspect of the story, where Rey inherits Leia’s long-unused lightsaber, as Leia can’t be properly around to explore this aspect of herself coherently. At least the episode does give her a solid salutary act as, like Luke, she uses the last of her Force, and life, to reach out to her son and pull him back from the brink of monstrosity, albeit almost costing him his life too.

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The excellent lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo offers a notable homage-cum-reversal of the duel at the climax of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Abrams exchanges boiling lava flows for the angry ocean crashing against the rusting remnants of the Death Star to likewise offer a mimetic canvas for the seething emotion and unleashed power of the duellists. This time it comes with a coherent subtext of two cursed inheritors battling amidst the quite literal wreckage of their elders’ deeds and crises, still trying to piece together a sure sense of their identity with the lingering disquiet that perhaps this is one dance that is eternal, perpetually driven on by failure as well as success. This aspect carries authentic gravitas, and it elevates the film considerably, even if it also highlights the way the trilogy failed to develop the theme properly. Some of Abrams’ persistent flaws nonetheless start nudging insistently. He’s strong at isolated pieces of action staging, but has no facility for larger-scale business. As in the stunted finale of The Force Awakens, he has no idea how to convey the climactic battle of the fleets with anything like tactical coherence and spatial relationship, not to mention any note of originality in the conception of such warfare: it’s lots of shots of X-Wings zipping and zapping or getting zapped. The climactic plot stakes, where the whole Final Order fleet is tethered together like a drone force and therefore can be collectively foiled, represents some really half-arsed screenwriting convenience.

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More serious problems are caused by attempts to walk back The Last Jedi’s cynical touches. Luke is revealed to have been in hiding partly because of his efforts to track down Exogol. His late appearance as a force phantom, to get Rey back into action after she briefly exiles herself to Aach-To, delivers on withheld promises like the resurgence of his sunken X-Wing, but feels rushed and cheesy. Better is Kylo’s imagined but still vital conversation with his dead father Han Solo (Harrison Ford), which offers a grace note laced with foreboding. Long-time fans are also likely to be annoyed by the Force’s transformation into a general form of magic useful for plugging story gaps, complete with Rey and Kylo able now to take physical objects from each-other even when in different places, and a new capacity for healing that comes out of nowhere, first displayed when Rey heals a giant, wounded sandworm and then more consequentially when she saves Kylo. Meanwhile Palpatine suddenly has power enough to fry whole space fleets in the sky. The Force was always a fantastical idea, a breath of the mystical in an otherwise, oppressively technological universe, but this stuff seems to violate all its essentials, only partly excused by the supposedly rare nature of the young antagonists’ bond and the power it produces. Star Wars was a major influence on Harry Potter but in the past couple of movies the traffic has definitely reversed. Seemingly important story pivots, like C3-PO accepting his imminent loss of memory and identity, are introduced and then just as quickly reversed. Granted, enough old series characters had died, but it still feel redolent of cold feet.

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The Rise of Skywalker is a much less stately and self-composed effort than either The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, which is also why, I suspect, I generally enjoyed it much more even whilst cringing at some of the visible seams and in spite of all the evident problems. It’s messy and regressive, but also proudly and inescapably a genuine, true-hearted hunk of pulp sci-fi fun, unconcerned with checking its own cool or critical cachet anymore and just trying to deliver a rollicking good time. It’s not weighed down by attempts to say something profound about fandom and nostalgia but getting on with delivering a good ride. That’s not necessarily a positive thing, but I also can’t really pretend it’s letting down what’s come before, which suffered from uncertainty about how to give and when; ironically, in giving sway to its scruffiest reasons for existing, The Rise of Skywalker manages to feel less calculated and constricted, and more like an act of happy, gormless conspiracy with other fans. I can’t pose much critical reasoning on this beyond simply having wanted and been delivered a pretty good time. But the best scenes here are good indeed; the only trouble is the film around insists on doubling everything up. The audience I saw it with seemed to have few scruples. They released a great groan of shock when Rey’s lineage was revealed, and a gasp of genuine surprise when the Lando-led fleet of allies finally arrived, the sheer scale of the image actually managing to impress even amidst the dulled palates of CGI-age cinema. Such virtually preternatural communal reactions feel more precious than ever on the contemporary movie scene.

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The finale comes on with such dizzy, daft gusto that it’s hard not to have such reactions, even with such ridiculous notions as Finn, Jannah and others riding alien steeds along the hull of a Star Destroyer, and twists like Kylo managing to fight his way through Palpatine’s guards only for him and Rey to present a perfect regenerative energy source for Palpatine, restoring him to, if not exactly health, then to his old, familiar creepiness. And indeed, precisely because of them. McDiarmid, who did an excellent job shading cunning and manipulative operator into pantomime villain in the prequels, here just has to leer and croak in the old style, and it’s an act he still does well. Palpatine sets up a new version of a familiar double bind for Rey as the act of killing him would transform her into the new Sith, a bind she’s able to get around as she feels her psychic real estate already filled up by generations of Jedi, and she uses her lightsaber to turn his energy bolts back at him, reducing him to dust. The effort kills her, so Kylo revives her by drawing on his own healing power; when the pair finally kissed, the audience I saw it with burst into applause only for it to die off as Kylo dies himself, having used all his life-force to restore her. I love that Abrams reaches for a note of weird and lawless liebestod here, something that might have lifted the new trilogy into an extraordinary place if it had been more compelling in terms of the whole series arc, but it just doesn’t land with the right force.

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Instead Rey is restored to her friends, and she, Finn, and Poe embrace in a way that confirms here the faith is less in the world-reshaping power of passion, a la the surrealists, than the warmth of a superfriends hug. The very ending again revolves the series back to its starting point, with Rey burying Luke and Leia’s lightsabers at Luke’s old home on Tattooine. She claims the name Skywalker as her own, now as it ever was an appended declaration of ambition for quixotic orphans, and she confronts the setting twin suns. It’s the fitting, even compulsory place to leave the saga, paying deep homage to its most fundamental image of dreamy wondering from the original that was also revisited at the end of Revenge of the Sith. But even this comes with a cost, as Rey also beholds Luke and Leia in their force forms, looking like something painted on a Franklin Mint collectible plate. Right to the end, The Rise of Skywalker sways between the sublime and the ridiculous, the earned and the gauche. Perhaps the fact that I felt little conflict this time was a symptom of having abandoned a certain aspect of my trust in the series, the feeling that I was watching Star Wars and expecting certain things from it rather than just another entertaining blockbuster. Certainly I felt more justified than ever in championing the prequels, and yet this also allowed me to simply enjoy what I was seeing. Finally it might be said that Williams, in bringing his great labour and perhaps his career to a close, imbues the unity that’s otherwise been lacking purely through the lustre of his scoring. How many dreams has his music fostered?

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